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    First, they came for the New Yorkers

    It looks as if news of the beheading of the Lebanese-American marine may have been a fake-out; still, some people are getting understandably itchy over the fact that the abduct-and-execute cycle has been repeated a few times over the last several months without decisive response from the coalition side. Reading Susanna Cornett’s assessment made me wonder about something for the millionth time since 9/11. It’s something that seems so obvious to me that it’s been unnerving to see no one commenting on it directly.

    The Onion, in its post-9/11 issue, had as one of its fake headlines “Rest of Country Temporarily Feels Deep Affection for New York,” or something like that. What made it funny, of course, was that it represented a truth that’s a little deeper than the usual idea that salt-of-the-Earth types in flyover country think we city-dwellers are crass and materialistic and sinful and arrogant. I don’t mean that the outpouring of affection for 9/11 victims and survivors wasn’t genuine, or that the sense of solidarity with New York and DC wasn’t genuine, or that anyone but the most odiously opportunistic ideologues believes that those places deserved to be attacked.

    I just mean that 9/11 did little to counter–indeed, played directly into–the idea that our big cities are where dangerous things happen and that you can avoid danger by staying out of them. Which is to say, I think that people believe America is vulnerable, but I’d have no trouble believing that most people don’t feel that they themselves are particularly vulnerable…largely because they don’t live in New York, LA, Chicago, DC, and maybe San Francisco or Houston. There are, plainly, good reasons to think that way. When an al Qaeda affiliate told Japan is was on the to-attack list for supporting the US, it was here in the middle of Tokyo that our train lines removed trash bins from station platforms and other security measures were taken.

    But there’s also an extent to which the sense of what is safe and what is dangerous is based on feel. This is just speculation, but I’d be willing to bet that most people’s sense of threat would become much more urgent if the next attack were on, say, Dallas instead of Philadelphia. It’s not that people value people in one place more than another. It’s just that everyone knows that Philadelphia is a City, whereas Dallas has the image of a piece of middle America that happens to have a lot of people (even though Dallas is waxing and Philadelphia waning in socio-economic prominence). I realize that I’m glossing over other differences–between regions, and also in the ways population centers form now vs. the way they formed when the traditional great American cities were rising. But to many Americans, more on the basis of common sense than any kind of reverse snobbery, the BOS-WASH and SAN-SAN cities, along with Chicago, are in a somewhat different mental zone from the rest of America. That’s not a problem in and of itself, but it probably doesn’t help bring home that, while future attacks may begin in our love-to-hate-them metropolitan areas, they won’t stop there.

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