Tuesday, 29 April 2008

A Substantial Pageant?

The cloud‑capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
The Tempest, Act 4, scene 1

The power and the symbolism of technology. Benign, boundlessly optimistic, and there in front of us, dominating the view, boldly defying gravity. Suddenly, those unquestioned certitudes dissolve into a roiling ball of black and orange flames. Towering assumptions fall like houses of cards, values stacked upon each other like the floors of skyscrapers suddenly topple into the abyss of fear and uncertainty. The technology that gives us an incomparable view over cityscapes, that carries us neatly through the sky from place to place, suddenly rounds on us malevolently. "Come fly the friendly skies," wheedle the advertisements, but abruptly those same skies offer that greatest of nightmares: entrapment, with death looming up in front of our terrified eyes. It is Hollywood spectacle as self-fulfilling prophesy.

The British social scientist Tom Horlick-Jones has interpreted disaster as a form of betrayal of trust; trust that the responsible authorities--governments, airlines, experts and officials of all kinds--will deliver us from evil. The horror of September 11th, 2001, was that we were all potential victims, we all mentally projected ourselves into those endless moments of betrayal. We were all poised on the window ledge of the 105th floor of the World Trade Center north tower, watching the flames and smoke advance inexorably toward us, or sitting frozen with fear in our airline seats as the building loomed up in front of us. In disaster, "human interest" gains a new meaning. In an age of television and the instant image, willingly or reluctantly, we all participate.

On a calm, bright morning in September the news breaks that airliners full of passengers have been turned into deadly weapons and flown full-tilt into two of the most prominent icons of American military, economic and technological prowess. The first reaction is to discount the entire story as a hoax. Sociologists call this the "normalcy bias," the desire to believe news that is comforting and routine, not that which is desperately disquieting. And then as the realization seeps in that it is all true, and worse is to follow: the storm breaks.


Deep in rural Maryland, Route 140 passes through some pleasant but unexceptional countryside and enters the nondescript small town of Emmitsburg. It is Civil War country, America's historical heartland, the landscape of national symbolism. Here, at the main intersection, a side-road leads gently down into the shallow, green valley where lies the joint training center of the U.S. Fire Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Two- and three-story brick buildings are arranged informally in a verdant campus landscape not unlike a small private university, though without the usual groups of undergraduates. At the centre of the complex is a mansion and a whitewashed chapel. Latin mottos are carved on the lintels of several doorways, for it was a catholic girls' school until 1970, when the U.S. government bought the property and converted it into an emergency training centre. The air is scented with the smell of new mown grass and a faint tang of smoke emanates from the back of the complex, where several buildings are periodically set on fire and extinguished by trainee firemen.

Television screens are everywhere. Those in the dormitory rooms show earnest discussions of post-traumatic stress disorder and videos of firemen cutting into crashed vehicles or wading through floodwaters. The great hall, where solid, institutional meals are served three times a day, is bedecked with the flags of the republic, the states, and the emergency services, the symbolism that reassures Americans and gives them a sense of belonging to a vast and individualistic country. On the walls of the corridors there are portraits of firemen in reflective overalls and federal administrators in grey business suits. Down in the basement, O'Rourke's Emporium sells Fire Service and FEMA tee-shirts, tote bags, furry mascots and bumper stickers. A different kind of symbolism prevails, but symbolism leaves as heavy an imprint on the culture of the emergency services as it does on every other aspect of national life.

Down a winding path an alcove has been fashioned in the campus greenery. Here is the National Fallen Firefighters= Monument. Each year a stone plaque is erected with the names of those who died on active service during the previous twelve months. Fire departments, with their heavy equipment, uniforms, discipline and camaraderie, are paramilitary organisations. The names carved in stone remind one of a long-drawn out war, for each year tens of firemen are killed on the job. This year the death toll is in the hundreds and the whole monument will have to be reorganised to find space for the list of names. It is a sombre place, deeply charged with meaning, but the symbolism is wrong: at the centre an eternal flame flickers in the wind, almost mocking in its puny emulation of the great conflagrations in which firemen routinely put their lives at risk. Fire fighters, as the New York Times observed, use humour as an oxygen supply. They constantly rib each other in order to reduce the tensions of the job, but they are not given to black humour.

When I arrived at the Emmitsburg training centre I was greeted by a sign informing me that, as there was a contamination emergency, I was not to drink water from the taps. I took it to heart and made for the campus pub. Afterwards, fortified by several glasses of Sam Adams's Boston Ale, I went looking for signs of the concealed underground bunker in which Albright met with Arafat. Perhaps it is under the cabin by the stream. The cheery log fire in the grate, lit no doubt to drive away the autumn dampness, had the aspect of an all too innocent diversion. In such a setting, the whole building seemed too casual to be real, the ornamental lake by its side too contrived. Disaster is on everyone's mind at the training centre: the place exists to prepare people for the worst.

Snow and ice storms, tornadoes, floods, and, of course, the water main contamination episode: like everywhere else in the country Emmitsburg has its share of risks. Pondering on this during a break from work, I found myself strolling along towards the small, central building labelled "Security." On impulse I went inside. Behind a counter a man was sitting at a desk flanked by a battery of close-circuit television screens and a board full of coloured switches.

"Excuse me," I said, "but I was wondering. Does this campus have an emergency plan?"

He looked up thoughtfully and a slowly broad smile spread across his face.

"It does," he replied softly, "but I couldn't tell you about it. I work for a subcontractor and we're not told about these things."

Meekly I thanked him and left, biting back the questions which would so easily seem like accusations: "But what would you do if an emergency happened? Are you really in charge of all these switches and buttons? What does security mean to your company if it doesn't teach you any of the procedures?" and so on. The worst kind of emergency planning is that which involves mystery.

To symbolism one can add public relations. In moments of national crisis four things matter: what is being done, what measures are being described to the listeners and viewers, what they perceive is being done, and what symbolic significance they attribute to such actions. Emergency preparedness obstinately remains a job for the community. It has resisted all attempts at privatisation (too much risk and too few guarantees of profit). Moreover, it cannot successfully be improvised or carried out alone by inspired individuals. In disaster true heroism comes exclusively out of following a predetermined plan.

All this sits very uneasily with the individualism that pervades so much of American life and is vaunted by so many citizens as a cardinal virtue (they perceive it as freedom). What is more, emergency preparedness has the unusual property that it may work very well at some levels of government while failing at others. For the ordinary citizen who fears betrayal by the authorities when they are supposed to guarantee a modicum of public safety, it is as well not to place too much reliance on official pronouncements until they are backed up by the observable facts.

Emergency preparedness, or civil protection as it is known in most of the rest of the world (including Canada and Latin America), is an odd sort of calling. It was born out of the desperate attempts to protect the civilian population during the air raids of the 1940s and subsequently in the shadowy and preposterous exercise of civil defence during the Cold War. As if anything could be done to stop a major nuclear exchange from wiping out the hapless civilian populations! In comparison, the subsequent birth of preparedness against floods, earthquakes and transportation crashes seemed like a return to sanity. Yet, after two decades of growth, civil protection is still not a fully-fledged profession with proper standards of training and procedures, even in America, with its boundless talent for organization.

So we should not take emergency management on trust. Yet we do take it on trust. A fireman colleague of mine once observed that people at risk of disaster demand the best possible assistance that money can buy, technology devise and organisation provide, just as the victims of ordinary road accidents expect well-equipped ambulances to arrive promptly and hospitals to provide efficient care with high professional standards. We accept nothing less, but we only make such demands on disaster response when a great emergency is already upon us. Rarely do we demand action beforehand, in what people who work in this field graphically refer to as "peace time."


A massive explosion shakes the World Trade Center north tower. The structure lurches, trembles and twists on its central axis of steel and concrete. Floors 93 to 105 of this 110-storey building catch fire and burn fiercely at temperatures of more than 800EC. Concrete is turned to dust and soot. Steel beams begin to buckle and eventually they melt. People hang out of windows and then tumble into the void beneath. Shouts and screams rent the air. Sirens begin to wail and carry on their mournful lament for days. Minutes later the south tower is hit. At 10.35, 105 minutes after the first impact, these great blocks of steel and glass are reduced to a 450,000-tonne pile of rubble no more than five stories high. An earthquake shock of magnitude 3.2 is recorded at the Palisades seismological station. In Washington, city of wedding-cake monuments and broad traffic-filled avenues, the Pentagon, the world's largest office block, labyrinthine symbol of solidity, bursts into flame and burns fiercely for more than a day.

In Washington eight hours after the start of the crisis, Mayor Anthony Williams issued a statement that read, "The District government took immediate steps to manage the situation here in the city and to take reasonable precautions to safeguard residents and visitors." In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani moved to ground zero in downtown Manhattan and stayed there. But the situation was by no means as reassuring as these efforts would suggest. In the Big Apple the emergency operations room, the nerve centre of disaster management, was supposed to be in the World Trade Center, where the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had offices on the 2nd, 14th and 19th floors of the north tower, the first to collapse. It had been set up there after the 1993 bombing as an act of defiance. In the nation's capital some days later, a Washington Post editorial concluded that "A review of last Tuesday's events suggests that the District [of Columbia] was unprepared for the emergency and therefore unable to react and assist the public in a timely and effective fashion."

Reports from the front line in Washington were not encouraging. The D.C. police appear to have had no emergency plan (improvisation is the nemesis of good emergency management). The emergency broadcast system, with its sinister bleeps and silences that intrude into radio programs every time it is tested, was not activated. Health officials found they had no radio capable of communicating with hospitals and ambulances. Senators and Congressman wandered around the houses of government unsure of what to do (the evacuation plans were untested and out of date). E-mail messages were sent to D.C. government workers telling them to evacuate, and four minutes later countermanding the order. Satellite telephones remained locked in a cupboard while the regular phone services ground to a halt under the duress of impossible numbers of calls. The streets filled with vehicles as commuters made for home, and gridlock trapped the incoming emergency vehicles.

But the most serious problems occurred in New York. Some 343 firemen and 78 policemen went in to rescue victims of the World Trade Center fires and died there when the buildings collapsed. They were crushed with their emergency vehicles under a compact 450,000-tonne mass of debris. It was the greatest tactical error in the history of U.S. emergency management.

Hours later structural engineers were stating in interviews that as soon as they saw the size of the fires they realised that the towers must inevitably collapse. But hindsight is a terrible thing in emergencies, a scourge of conscience, a handy weapon for accusers, a distorter of truths. Moreover, the events of 11 September 2001 were unprecedented in scale, daring and degree of coordination. Yet no single element of the disasters was entirely without precedent. Hence, concealed deep within the fallout of this event, some essential truth lies waiting to be rescued and pieced back together again. It is this: in cities full of skyscrapers, knowledge of the behaviour of tall buildings under extreme duress should be an essential prerequisite for emergency planning. Emergency plans should be based on plausible and well thought out scenarios. A long time before the terrorist attacks of September 2001 voices were being raised down at Emmitsburg suggesting that emergency planners were taking too limited a view of disaster and that it was time to "think the unthinkable" and plan for truly horrifying events. Quite right: the last emergency exercise in Washington was based on the release of toxic gas at a hot-dog stand outside the Smithsonian Museum. In retrospect it seems almost laughable.

In a world dominated by the lust of big business for overweening symbolism, designers have surely underestimated the risks associated with tall buildings. At the World Trade Center, evacuees crowded the narrow stairwells and escalators to such an extent that it took many of those who survived more than an hour to get to ground level. They had to make way for firemen with their bulky equipment who struggled up the stairs, and in some cases they had to crawl over dead bodies in darkness and smoke and slosh through the water of failed sprinkler systems. Outside, in the black atmosphere of soot and dust, pieces of building the size of articulated lorries fell into the street with thundering impacts. People emerged so coated with dust that they looked like ghosts, an impression that tended to be confirmed by their horrified expressions.
No fireman=s ladder will reach further than the ninth floor of any building, but for many people entrapment is their worst nightmare. Now that it is all over, the fireman in reflective overalls with his tense expression and grubby yellow oxygen tanks and the couples who joined hands and launched themselves into the void are united in death. They both represent a failure to foresee and protect. Hindsight will send its insidious messages reverberating through the risk management community: maybe we could have done more it will whisper to us. Disaster is a sobering phenomenon, with its excruciating lessons, its awful process of learning.


In Washington, D.C., the metro trains continued to run, swishing through those airy coffered concrete tunnels even as the firemen struggled with the flames at the Pentagon. Arlington County activated its emergency plan with commendable celerity. The world-renowned urban search-and-rescue team of Fairfax County, Virginia, leapt into action, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency shot trouble wherever it encountered it. In Manhattan, the supposed insularity of New Yorkers--psychological rather than physical, that is--dissolved in what sociologists, who have a penchant for jargon, call the "post-disaster therapeutic community." And some of the lessons of the tragedy were reassuring: panic, for example, rarely infected people, even among many of those who had to run for their lives. Looting did not happen. It confirmed the views of the disaster sociologists who have for years been relaying such a message to the deaf ears of a public conditioned by the mass media, eternal custodians of the myths and fables of social breakdown.


In the Indian state of Gujarat the earthquake of 26 January 2001 killed 19,737 people, injured 166,836 and left more than a million homeless. In many other parts of the world, catastrophe is a persistent fact of daily life: Chechnya, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Mozambique, the list is a long one and it shows no tendency to get shorter. We live in the age of the 'complex emergency', a deadly amalgam of social, economic and military breakdown interlaced with the natural disasters of flood, drought or earthquake. But often the world community remains largely indifferent, for no measure of human suffering is ever used to determine the severity of one event relative to another. Perhaps there is no objective measure of such a thing. Perhaps 'donor fatigue' has overwhelmed us.

An earthquake can be a very frightening thing. It comes out of the ground with little or no warning and cannot be confronted face to face, for it is invisible until it strikes. But it is nevertheless an unambiguous threat, one that tends to break down barriers between enemies and rival factions. In contrast, terrorism is deeply ambiguous. It reveals the contradictions in human society. It uses human inventiveness--the same inventiveness that is the source of our optimism as a species--to strike at our own weak spots. It furthers causes that some people believe in and others abhor. It is ruthlessly partial, and finally it can convert apparently benign forms of technology into lethal weaponry. Hence it injects a new measure of suffering into the balance of events.

In 1755 the western world was convulsed when the gloriously florid commercial and imperial city of Lisbon was summarily razed by earthquake, fire and tsunami. The tremors struck one Sunday morning while the inhabitants were at prayer in the city's churches. As these buildings collapsed, the alter candles set light to draperies and the wreckage caught fire and blazed furiously. Citizens who escaped such horrors fled to the waterfront and were promptly overwhelmed as enormous seismic sea waves flooded up the Tagus estuary. There seemed to be no more graphic example of divine retribution for human wickedness. Even the superb rationalism of the Enlightenment was thrown into reverse gear as one by one the leading philosophers of the time began to take a more gloomy view of the future.

Something of that mentality seems to be developing in the wake of the American terrorism outrages. In this context, the parallels with the mid-eighteenth century are disturbing, not least for what they say about progress--or the lack of it. But wickedness is no retribution for other wickedness. All that is clear amid the betrayal, the dust, smoke and fear of New York and Washington is that the road back to reason looks set to be a long and arduous one.