FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

 

More articles by:

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

Weekend Edition
August 17, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Daniel Wolff
The Aretha Dialogue
Nick Pemberton
Donald Trump and the Rise of Patriotism 
Joseph Natoli
First Amendment Rights and the Court of Popular Opinion
Andrew Levine
Midterms 2018: What’s There to Hope For?
Robert Hunziker
Hothouse Earth
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Running Out of Fools
Ajamu Baraka
Opposing Bipartisan Warmongering is Defending Human Rights of the Poor and Working Class
Paul Street
Corporate Media: the Enemy of the People
David Macaray
Trump and the Sex Tape
CJ Hopkins
Where Have All the Nazis Gone?
Daniel Falcone
The Future of NATO: an Interview With Richard Falk
Cesar Chelala
The Historic Responsibility of the Catholic Church
Ron Jacobs
The Barbarism of US Immigration Policy
Kenneth Surin
In Shanghai
William Camacaro - Frederick B. Mills
The Military Option Against Venezuela in the “Year of the Americas”
Nancy Kurshan
The Whole World Was Watching: Chicago ’68, Revisited
Robert Fantina
Yemeni and Palestinian Children
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Orcas and Other-Than-Human Grief
Shoshana Fine – Thomas Lindemann
Migrants Deaths: European Democracies and the Right to Not Protect?
Paul Edwards
Totally Irrusianal
Thomas Knapp
Murphy’s Law: Big Tech Must Serve as Censorship Subcontractors
Mark Ashwill
More Demons Unleashed After Fulbright University Vietnam Official Drops Rhetorical Bombshells
Ralph Nader
Going Fundamental Eludes Congressional Progressives
Hans-Armin Ohlmann
My Longest Day: How World War II Ended for My Family
Matthew Funke
The Nordic Countries Aren’t Socialist
Daniel Warner
Tiger Woods, Donald Trump and Crime and Punishment
Dave Lindorff
Mainstream Media Hypocrisy on Display
Jeff Cohen
Democrats Gather in Chicago: Elite Party or Party of the People?
Victor Grossman
Stand Up With New Hope in Germany?
Christopher Brauchli
A Family Affair
Jill Richardson
Profiting From Poison
Patrick Bobilin
Moving the Margins
Alison Barros
Dear White American
Celia Bottger
If Ireland Can Reject Fossil Fuels, Your Town Can Too
Ian Scott Horst
Less Voting, More Revolution
Peter Certo
Trump Snubbed McCain, Then the Media Snubbed the Rest of Us
Dan Ritzman
Drilling ANWR: One of Our Last Links to the Wild World is in Danger
Brandon Do
The World and Palestine, Palestine and the World
Chris Wright
An Updated and Improved Marxism
Daryan Rezazad
Iran and the Doomsday Machine
Patrick Bond
Africa’s Pioneering Marxist Political Economist, Samir Amin (1931-2018)
Louis Proyect
Memoir From the Underground
Binoy Kampmark
Meaningless Titles and Liveable Cities: Melbourne Loses to Vienna
Andrew Stewart
Blackkklansman: Spike Lee Delivers a Masterpiece
Elizabeth Lennard
Alan Chadwick in the Budding Grove: Story Summary for a Documentary Film
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail