The Strategists of Urban Destruction

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.


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

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