Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Why didn't Kansans care about 9/11?

In the comments, Mike the Mad Biologist wrote:
Regarding terrorism elsewhere [out of the metropolitan areas], I'm not sure I agree. It would be politically devastating to hit the 'heartland', but I don't think it will happen. How about people in KC realize that life in metropolitan areas has taken a real hit (particularly in DC and NYC) and helping us. Would that be so hard?

We don't need flags or firemen stickers; as you point out, we need money to 'terror-proof' our mass transit and other public areas.
There are important points there, and I want to get into it.

As a New Yorker by upbringing, I was glued to the tube all morning on 9/11, and was profoundly shaken by it. Native Kansans I spoke with here were saddened, but moved on. I felt like the world was collapsing, and they felt like a bad thing was happening to a place they never much cared for.

A few months later, a person I was talking with (who shall remain anonymous) said that "If New York were to be destroyed slowly enough that all the people could get out safely, that'd be OK with me."

I don't fully understand it, but there it is.

I know that life in New York has changed dramatically, and I think that NY has made real progress towards rapid response and first responder communications. It's pretty silly for Wyoming to get more money per capita than NY did for anti-terror projects. On the other hand, terrorists will attack where we're weakest. The symbolism of an attack in Kansas, or even Chicago, would be devastating.

Consider this. I went to college at the University of Chicago. Hyde Park is a great neighborhood, and it's very safe. For interesting historical reasons, it is surrounded by some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city on three sides (and the lake on the other). Muggings are not uncommon, and rapes, breakins, and even murders of students were not unheard of. There are lots of cops there, between the city police and campus cops, it has the second density of police per person in the country (if I remember right).

While I was there, student government campaigns routinely advocated installing blue lights over the callboxes that dotted the neighborhood. I thought it was silly, and never had occasion to be afraid, let alone use a box. (I also spent a year riding up and down the subway in Manhattan and the Bronx, interviewing subway musicians, and never had a problem.)

When I got to Lawrence, I found that they already had the blue lights and the phones and a massive police force, all to defend a smaller population with less crime. Why is there all that security here? Because for a kid (or parents) from Wamego, this is the big, scary city. One reason kids come here, and that parents send them here, is that it's seen as safe.

A bomb at the Grenada on a Saturday night would shatter that, and would shatter parents' willingness to send kids to Lawrence, Stony Brook, Lincoln, Boulder, Provo, Columbia (Mo.), Urbana-Champaign, etc. Right now, the college town is an institution: it's big enough to be exciting, but small and insular enough to feel safe. Some blue lights and campus cops give a nice, satisfied feeling to small-town parents who worry about "the city" and wouldn't dream of sending their offspring to Chicago, let alone New York City.

In the aftermath of 9/11, there were people who wanted our museum to have a better plan for preventing a terrorist assault. That was dumb. No one will fly planes into the Epic Center, at 22 stories, the tallest building in Kansas. No one will try to destroy our museum of natural history. Our exceptional aspects aren't what will be attacked here. What would be attacked here is the complacency, calm, and safety that people who have avoided big cities all their lives feel.

I visited friends and family in November and December of 2001, and both times I was struck by how much New York changed and how little Kansas had. I remember a street full of jaded New Yorkers stopping and staring up at the sky as a plane flew overhead. I remember the tattered posters families had put together, hoping to recover the "Missing" who had disappeared into the dust and rubble of the World Trade Center. I remember the smoke still rising out of the rubble months later, and I still see a giant hole when I look at the skyline as I land in Newark.

New Yorkers, a people who survived in the dangerous 80s and are nonchalant about a city that many regard as so dangerous, got scared by 9/11. Midwesterners didn't, as far as I can tell.

I was flying back from my grandmother's funeral the day anthrax was identified at a Kansas City mail sorting facility, and it was the first time any of the events of late 2001 seemed to have hit anywhere off the East Coast. Even that wasn't so impressive, since it was found on a machine transferred in for repairs.

So there are two points.

One: when people say "9/11 changed everything" they mean it changed everything for New Yorkers and Washington, or at least that the way things changed is not constant. I'm not convinced that the people living around me understand what happened on 9/11.

Two: While more strikes on the big cities are certainly more likely, we should be prepared for attacks on the smaller towns and cities.

I think it's unfortunate that a dramatic attack on coastal cities could have so little effect on the rest of the country. It may not be surprising that the Oklahoma City attack didn't really freak out my community when I lived in New York, but it is unexpected how little an attack on the nation's premiere city could have so little effect out here.

Consider this an early 'Round the Table. Send yours in today or tomorrow.