So, urban mayhem has been on my mind lately.
I’ve been reading up on the 2011 riots here in London and across the UK, particularly the official, service and government reviews. Coming from the perspective of sources in military affairs, it has been a comfortable foray into a familiar-seeming alphabet soup of agencies. In the medium to long term I want to do a military history of the disorder in London specifically. I knew the application of Clio to the subject was viable when I read a footnote in one of the reports which discussed the diversity of shield tactics for use in public order policing. The echoes of ancient warfare cannot be ignored.
However, at the current moment I am circling the contours of modern urban mayhem and conflict. Here my concern is with the implications of tactics, and one in particular, so I will throw the following question or concept out there for consideration:
At what point does a traffic accident become an act of war?
With a relatively small number of vehicles and trucks most of Manhattan’s river crossings can be choked off with relative ease using auto accidents. Jack-knife tractor trailers on the bridges, and take out fellow travellers in the tunnels and it’s done. These blockages would also have the further effect that the cascading failure caused by the traffic stoppages leads inexorably and tragically to gridlock across the city.
Manhattan is an island. It lives and dies in the short to medium term on the viability of a limited number of low through-put bottlenecks. I have, on terrible evenings, spent hours driving up and down Brooklyn or eastern New Jersey trying desperately to find a route through or around the island. And those were occasions where just a normal bit of bad news in a few spots had led to 2-3 hour back-ups to access the bridges and tunnels. A person could weep at such moments.
It must be clear, then, that the threat posed by intractable traffic jams should be a significant concern. And Manhattan is not the only city in the US or beyond which is in such potential peril. Whether the tactic as outlined here were used against only a few targets each week over the course of several as part of a slow-building disabling of a city or implemented against all as an asymmetric shock and awe opening to a larger campaign of attacks, in either case it clearly amounts to an act of war. But it could take time for this to become evident. And in any case, what do jets and tanks and soldiers matter against the unknowable guy in any vehicle who’s about to bumper cars in the Holland Tunnel? For that matter, what could law enforcement do? Without intentionally closing these bottlenecks and thereby committing an act of managed self-destruction, there are few courses of action which can mitigate the threat.
Consideration of what asymmetry will bring us next tends to focus on nightmare scenarios (the rogue nuclear weapon, chemical and biological horrors, and other familiar weapons of mass effect) and spectacular attacks upon standard pieces of important infrastructure. Less thought is given to what one could call ‘papercut’ tactics. I worry that such standard approaches might be dangerous if something as mundane as traffic can be turned into a weapon.
But I really want to know what others think. So, pass this along and let me know.