Nettime — Saskia Sassen — Cities and new wars: after Mumbai

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The attacks on India’s commercial capital belong to a global frontline of
asymmetric urban warfare, says Saskia Sassen.
Cities and new wars: after Mumbai
Saskia Sassen
29 – 11 – 2008

The Mumbai attacks of 26-29 November 2008 are part of an emerging type of
urban violence. These were organised, simultaneous frontal assaults with
grenades and machine-guns on ten high-profile sites in or near the central
business and tourism district
This has affinities with the asymmetric street warfare waged by the gangs
in Rio de Janeiro that every now and then announce they will take over a
major central area of the city from (say) 9am to 5pm: the result is
shuttered shops and empty streets. If the police try to respond, it is
open warfare, and the police rarely win – this is a challenge for which
the police are not trained. After 5pm the gangs withdraw. It is often said
that all of this results from inadequate policing or crime waves.
But that is too simple. There is a deeper transformation afoot. It is
still rare but it is more frequently becoming visible. It is as if the
centre no longer holds. Cities seem to be losing the capacity they have
long had to triage conflict – through commerce, through civic activity.
The national state, confronted with a similar conflict, has historically
chosen to go to war. In my new research project – on cities and war – I am
studying whether cities are losing this capacity and are becoming sites
for a range of new types of violence.
Further, the new asymmetric wars have the effect of urbanising war. This
brings with it a nasty twist: when national states go to war in the name
of national security, nowadays major cities are likely to become a key
frontline space. In older conventional wars, large armies needed large
open fields or oceans to meet and fight, and these were the frontline
Today the search for national security may well become a source for urban
insecurity. The “war on terror” reveals that cities become the theatres
for asymmetric war, regardless of what side of the divide they are –
allies or enemies. The attacks in Madrid, London, Casablanca, Bali, are
symptomatic. So too is the United States’s conventional military aerial
bombing. It took under three weeks to destroy the Iraqi army’s resistance
and take over power in 2003. But then the asymmetric wars set in, with
Baghdad, Mosul, Basra, and other Iraqi cities the sites of conflict – for
years. Indeed, the fact that the Mumbai attackers evidently sought and
prized Americans and British among the hostages they took, is clearly
related to George W Bush’s declaration of war on Iraq and Britain’s
supportive role.
The traditional security paradigm based on national-state security does
not accommodate this triangulation. What may be good to protect the
national state apparatus may cost major cities and their people a high
(increasingly high) price. In the dense and conflictive spaces of cities,
a variety of forms of violence can be foreseen.
Moreover, new kinds of crises may result from the major environmental
disasters that are looming in our immediate futures. These will further
challenge the traditional commercial and civic capacities that have
allowed cities to avoid war when confronted with conflict. These crises
could feed the violence that can arise from extreme economic inequality,
and racial and religious conflicts.
The results will be felt particularly in cities because of the often
profound kinds of dependence of cities on complex systems – apartment
buildings, hospitals, vast sewage systems, huge underground transport
systems, whole electric grids – all of which rest on computerised
management vulnerable to breakdowns. A major mock experiment by Nasa found
that by the fifth day of a breakdown in the computerised systems that
manage the electric grid, a city like New York would be in extremis. In
Mumbai’s tragedy can be glimpsed the image of a global future.
Saskia Sassen is the Robert S Lynd professor of sociology and member,
Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University. Her books include Losing
Control? Sovereignty in the Age of Globalization (Columbia University
Press, 1996) and The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton
University Press, 2001). Her latest book is Territory, Authority, and
Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton University Press,
2006), based on a five-year project on governance and accountability in a
global economy