FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Strategists of Urban Destruction

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN

There are some sure things in the gamble called Life. Among them the 
following: .
Unless they’re so down on their luck that the barman is playing solitaire, nightclubs are by definition unsafe. You want to play by the odds, stay home and read Tolstoy.

In the event of panic or fire, your chances are going to be less than 50/50. Drunken revelers don’t tend to stand at attention singing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” while the women proceed at an orderly pace to the exits.

There are other certainties: that the club’s promoters will have secured their liquor license, immunity from complaints by the neighbors, etc., by dint of bribery and political clout. Duane Kyles, owner of E2, the Chicago club where 21 died last week, had the Jackson family–Jesse and Jesse Jr.–going to bat for him.

It was a busy week for the Reverend, since he also assigned himself the task of comforting the survivors and the bereaved. Jesse’s shuttle was too much for one Chicago city council member, Madeline Haithcock, who called him a hypocrite: “He’s with the victims one minute holding prayer vigils…and with his friends the next. That’s him. That’s the role he plays. He likes to get in the papers.”

True. All politicians do. Back in the fall of 1991, there was a fire in the Imperial chicken processing plant in Hamlet, NC, that killed 25 workers, mostly women on minimum wage. Jackson rushed to Hamlet, bible in hand. This being North Carolina and not the South Side of Chicago, there was no likelihood of Imperial being owned by a Brother. There was an authentic villain in the form of plant owner Emmett Roe, who had suspected the workers of stealing chicken and therefore locked or blocked doors. Roe was sentenced to 19 years, 11 months, but was let out after serving four.

Crowds and fire. Darkness and panic. These are the currency of these weird times as the Pentagon divulges its plan to “shock and awe” the people of Baghdad with a 48-hour barrage of missiles. Two weekends ago, we had the unity of vast crowds asserting life; and then, a few days later, we saw the crowd in the guise of panic-stricken throngs, in Chicago and Rhode Island, crushing each other to death and being burned.

At the start of the 1960s, another high decade for crowds, fire and war, Elias Canetti published his eerie, eccentric book, Crowds and Power. It has a brilliant opening passage describing how a man feels amid the panic of a burning theater:

“The people he pushes away are like burning objects to him… Fire, as a symbol for the crowd, has entered the whole economy of man’s feelings and become an immutable part of it. That emphatic trampling on people, so often observed in panics and apparently so senseless, is nothing but the stamping out of fire.”

Amid newscasts switching between reports from the charred club in Rhode Island and George W. Bush calling on Saddam to lay down his arms, pending attack, can any decently sensitive person not imagine Baghdad or Basra once the missiles start to fall and anticipate dreadful episodes like the careful targeting of the Al-Amariya shelter, targeted because, as one Pentagon man told the press, they wanted to alert Saddam’s elite that their wives and children weren’t safe?

Actually, the elites had left Baghdad and the poor women and children were in the shelter when the U.S. missile penetrated the reinforced concrete roof and killed them.

This brings us to the consoling topic of luck: the mother who missed her chance to get to the shelter; the fellow who left the nightclub five minutes earlier. At some level, we pay hopeful respect to the whims of Providence.

But in the bigger picture, accidents turn into certainties. Back in 1998, Deborah and Rodrick Wallace published A Plague on Your Houses (Verso), a carefully researched book about how, in the 1970s era of “planned shrinkage,” social engineers, some of them mustered in the Rand Corporation Fire Project, supervised the deliberate degradation of fire control resources in areas the engineers of shrinkage had slated for clearance.

About 10 percent of New York’s fire companies were eliminated, manpower cut back, emergency response systems whittled down. After the inevitable fire epidemic, there was an equally inevitable epidemic of housing abandonment by landlords. Poor neighborhoods collapsed. When the dust settled, the Wallaces calculate that about two million poor people had been uprooted.

Those strategists of urban destruction were never rushed into the pillory the way Kyles or Roe were. True, they were exposed by the Wallaces, but that was many years later.

Maybe, many years later, there’ll be a definitive account of why the Twin Towers fell as rapidly as they did. As things stand, one can find accounts that it was design incompetence and cost-cutting married to the desire to maximize rentable space. See, for example, my colleague Jeffrey St. Clair’s excellent account of the architectural flaws of the WTC or go to scieneering.com, and you’ll find a compelling account of the extreme vulnerability of the panels and square tubes.

Here’s how the scieneering.com essay concludes:

“Weak floor-to-wall connections and missing connections between segments of the exterior wall columns contributed significantly to the collapse of the World Trade towers. If these defects were not present, the collapse of the towers might have been prevented or delayed. However, the aircraft would still have penetrated into the core, and the ensuing fire would have trapped the occupants above the crash zone.”

In other words, the odds were bad from the very start.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

This essay first appeared in the March 2003 edition of CounterPunch magazine.

 

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

February 27, 2017
Anthony DiMaggio
Media Ban! Making Sense of the War Between Trump and the Press
Dave Lindorff
Resume Inflation at the NSC: Lt. General McMaster’s Silver Star Was Essentially Earned for Target Practice
Conn Hallinan
Is Trump Moderating US Foreign Policy? Hardly
Norman Pollack
Political Castration of State: Militarization of Government
Kenneth Surin
Inside Dharavi, a Mumbai Slum
Lawrence Davidson
Truth vs. Trump
Binoy Kampmark
The Extradition Saga of Kim Dotcom
Robert Fisk
Why a Victory Over ISIS in Mosul Might Spell Defeat in Deir Ezzor
David Swanson
Open Guantanamo!
Ted Rall
The Republicans May Impeach Trump
Lawrence Wittner
Why Should Trump―or Anyone―Be Able to Launch a Nuclear War?
Andrew Stewart
Down with Obamacare, Up with Single Payer!
Colin Todhunter
Message to John Beddington and the Oxford Martin Commission
David Macaray
UFOs: The Myth That Won’t Die?
Weekend Edition
February 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Exxon’s End Game Theory
Pierre M. Sprey - Franklin “Chuck” Spinney
Sleepwalking Into a Nuclear Arms Race with Russia
Paul Street
Liberal Hypocrisy, “Late-Shaming,” and Russia-Blaming in the Age of Trump
Ajamu Baraka
Malcolm X and Human Rights in the Time of Trumpism: Transcending the Master’s Tools
John Laforge
Did Obama Pave the Way for More Torture?
Mike Whitney
McMaster Takes Charge: Trump Relinquishes Control of Foreign Policy 
Patrick Cockburn
The Coming Decline of US and UK Power
Louisa Willcox
The Endangered Species Act: a Critical Safety Net Now Threatened by Congress and Trump
Vijay Prashad
A Foreign Policy of Cruel Populism
John Chuckman
Israel’s Terrible Problem: Two States or One?
Matthew Stevenson
The Parallax View of Donald Trump
Norman Pollack
Drumbeat of Fascism: Find, Arrest, Deport
Stan Cox
Can the Climate Survive Electoral Democracy? Maybe. Can It Survive Capitalism? No.
Ramzy Baroud
The Trump-Netanyahu Circus: Now, No One Can Save Israel from Itself
Edward Hunt
The United States of Permanent War
David Morgan
Trump and the Left: a Case of Mass Hysteria?
Pete Dolack
The Bait and Switch of Public-Private Partnerships
Mike Miller
What Kind of Movement Moment Are We In? 
Elliot Sperber
Why Resistance is Insufficient
Brian Cloughley
What are You Going to Do About Afghanistan, President Trump?
Binoy Kampmark
Warring in the Oncology Ward
Yves Engler
Remembering the Coup in Ghana
Jeremy Brecher
“Climate Kids” v. Trump: Trial of the Century Pits Trump Climate Denialism Against Right to a Climate System Capable of Sustaining Human Life”
Jonathan Taylor
Hate Trump? You Should Have Voted for Ron Paul
Franklin Lamb
Another Small Step for Syrian Refugee Children in Beirut’s “Aleppo Park”
Ron Jacobs
The Realist: Irreverence Was Their Only Sacred Cow
Andre Vltchek
Lock up England in Jail or an Insane Asylum!
Rev. William Alberts
Grandiose Marketing of Spirituality
Paul DeRienzo
Three Years Since the Kitty Litter Disaster at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
Eric Sommer
Organize Workers Immigrant Defense Committees!
Steve Cooper
A Progressive Agenda
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail