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The Apocalyptic Terrorists : LOS ANGELES : Terrorism: L.A.'s Sprawl May Be Its Saving Grace

March 26, 1995|James Sanders | James Sanders is an architect and author. His book "Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies " will be published next year by Alfred A. Knopf

NEW YORK — Reacting to the horrifying reports of Monday's terrorist attack in the Tokyo subway system, residents of Los Angeles may question the vulnerability of their city to such attacks: If not by a lethal gas, as in Tokyo, then by more "conventional" terrorist techniques, such as bombs and explosives. Part of the answer, of course, lies in the preparedness of the city's and county's police and emergency services and in the level of day-to-day security measures. But part lies in the fundamental shape of Los Angeles, and it raises some provocative questions about the way the city has grown in the past--and the different direction it may be headed in the future.

There is little doubt that the very qualities that have shaped traditional cities have also multiplied their vulnerability to terrorist attack. If busy, high-density streets and sidewalks, crowded mass-transit systems and large, high-rise office buildings are the hallmarks of 20th-Century urbanism, they also offer, unfortunately, the best civilian targets for mass destruction.

One reason is simply the sheer concentration of bodiesin dense, pedestrian-oriented settings. In September, 1920, anarchists hid a bomb in a pushcart, rolled it into the middle of Wall Street and set if off at 12:30 on a weekday afternoon, knowing full well that at that place and time--New York's most crowded street at lunch hour--their device would do the greatest possible human damage. (Thirty-eight people were killed, hundreds of others wounded.) The recent attack in Japan has reminded everyone that most subway systems and high-rise office buildings rely on air-circulation systems that can spread a toxic substance with frightening efficiency to hundreds or even thousands of people, in just minutes.

It is, of course, exactly these kinds of pedestrian-oriented environments, mass-transit systems and high-rise buildings that give cities the kind of classic urbanism that Los Angeles has been derided for lacking. For those to whom urbanism means lively sidewalks and rushing throngs, Los Angeles has never seemed like a city at all. And, indeed, after decades of being ridiculed as nothing more than an overgrown suburb, Los Angeles is seeking to transform itself, with greater emphasis on high-rise construction and, now, a new subway system--just like a "real city."

Yet, last week's events in Tokyo, along with other terrorist acts in recent years, raise the troubling question whether Los Angeles' traditional pattern of growth--based on low-rise, decentralized development and an orientation toward the automobile rather than pedestrians--actually offers superior protection against terrorists. With fewer people gathered in a single place like a busy street or square, or sharing the same ventilation system, as in a subway or big office building, Los Angeles' traditional spread-out, low-rise urbanism may well make it harder to achieve as high a level of human injury--thus discouraging anyone who might try.

It is not a trivial concern--or a new one. In fact, when America's 41,000-mile interstate-highway system was started in the mid-1950s--the act that, more than any other, ratified auto-based Los Angeles as the model for the rest of the nation--it was, in large part, due to similar worries.

Does all this mean that Los Angeles should give up all attempts to improve pedestrian activity, increase density and balance the automobile with mass-transit systems? Not necessarily. For the larger reality, sad but paradoxical, is that it is the very attraction and excitement of an urban place that can make it so tempting as a target. Since the point of a terrorist attack is not so much to harm its specific victims as to instill the maximum sense of fear in the larger population, it follows that targets must be picked with an eye to "public relations."

It is no coincidence that the most recent incident, for example, occurred in Japan's capital, Tokyo, and not some secondary city, like Osaka. Nor was it surprising that when international terrorists set out to make a major attack in the United States, they selected New York--and in New York, the prominent World Trade Center--as their target. Indeed, it can be considered a perverse but nonetheless genuine tribute to New York's continued eminence that the city and its institutions--from the Stock Exchange to the United Nations to the World Trade Center--are considered as potential targets.

Thankfully, though, even New York has only had to deal with terrorism as an isolated event. But visitors to the great capital cities of Europe, especially London and Paris, are often struck by how much the concern for terrorism has become part of the fabric of everyday life--almost as a price of living in the most desirable of urban places. Few Londoners or Parisians, however, would consider moving to provincial cities, such as Birmingham or Lyon--though their lower profile and diminished level of urban excitement makes them, presumably, safer from terrorist danger.

It is an old contradiction that worldly success in life can bring with it special dangers--the threat of kidnaping, for example--that the less successful need not worry about. Similarly, vital and lively cities may face certain dangers unfamiliar to their less successful counterparts--precisely because of the qualities that make them succeed. Throughout life, one must find the balance between prudent protection, on the one hand, and an unreasonable fearfulness that, in the name of safety, would shut down much of the day-to-day enjoyment of living.

There may well be good reasons for Los Angeles to choose not to pattern itself after denser, more traditional cities--but that decision should not be based on fear. After all, if the choice had been made entirely on the basis of remote but devastating possibility, rather than on the satisfaction of everyday needs and pleasures, no one would ever have built a city in Los Angeles in the first place.*

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