A couple of nights after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, my 12-year-old son hit me with a question that was surprising, even for a child who has hit an age bracket that is known for asking embarrassing questions. "Dad," he asked with unusual timidity, "do we have to live in Washington?"
The question was a shock on several levels. Children his age hate to move. Last year, when we moved to a larger house that was only four blocks from our old house, the kid had a fit. He didn't want to leave his friends, and pleaded with tears in his eyes. He has long since gotten over that, in time to deal with new anxieties. The age of terror set off by the bombings of Sept. 11 has shaken his preteen inertia amid fears of anthrax and other biochemical threats. His first impulse, as it is for many of us grown-ups, is to run.
The same uncertainty that shakes our children these days shakes our cities. As I watched Wall Street workers running away from the monstrous dust cloud kicked up by the crumbling World Trade Center, as if in a scene from an old "Godzilla" movie, I could feel a change in my long-standing perceptions of city life. The soaring skyscrapers of Manhattan and the fortress walls of the Pentagon, once majestic symbols of American strength, now symbolize our vulnerability.
Our sense of well-being and progress has crumbled into anxiety and fear. A survivalist everyone-for-themselves impulse has set in. There's a run on gas masks and antibiotics. "Cocooning," the cozy little word for couch potatoes of the 1990s, may soon be replaced by "bunkering," as companies flee downtown high-rise office buildings and families flee to the suburbs and beyond.
As a fan of city life, I wonder: Could terrorists undo American cities in ways that crime, past wars and white middle-class flight never did? Could cities, after their recent bonanza years of job growth, crime shrinkage, economic recovery, revived tourism and revitalized neighborhood energy suddenly be plunged back into the dark days of high crime, racial hysteria, economic stagnation and middle-class flight? That's the new worry of groups like CEOs for Cities, a consortium that corporate leaders, university presidents and mayors formed in recent years to advance competitiveness in urban centers.
Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino hosted a discussion last Thursday led by mayors such as Chicago's Richard M. Daley, Baltimore's Martin O'Malley, Milwaukee's John Norquist and Indianapolis' Bart Peterson, to talk about "A Changed Reality: The Impact and Implications of Sept. 11 for Cities." Six months after declaring urban decline to be "a phenomenon of the past," the leaders were huddling to consider a new threat: terrorism.
It is significant to remember that suburbia rose in the 1950s partly under the shadow of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war. Washington subsidized housing loans and a massive federal highway program in part to scatter the populace, reduce potential war casualties and prevent the paralysis of the country.
Now, in the face of a new and unexpected war threat, I think the advice we give to our children is good for us, too. As I advised my offspring, passing on my own father's time-honored advice, "Son, we can run, but we can't hide."
No, we Americans need to stand fast. We need to summon up that "grace under pressure" that Ernest Hemingway talked about in his definition of courage. We need to turn the chill of fear into the energy of outrage and defiance. We city workers and dwellers must show how much we value the freedom we have to live where we want by showing our willingness to fight for it.
Cities, like states, must do more than turn with hats in hand to the federal government the way the airlines and some other financially troubled corporations have. In the long run, cities must help themselves to save themselves.
City dwellers value the privacy and anonymity that urban life offers. But as countless volunteers showed in countless ways during the terror crisis and earlier ones like the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, Americans know how to reach out and help their neighbors in times of crisis.
Terrorism has rocked the cocky confidence of many Americans. But we are a nation of survivors and innovators. In that tradition, I expect our cities to rise out of the rubble in this new era of terrorism in much the way London, Rome, Paris and other war-torn cities have risen. We will be challenged and changed, but not choked or chained.
A child's first concern is safety and security. It's a basic human instinct. We never grow out of it. That's what makes terror an effective tactic for those who have no other super-weapons to use in getting their way. They want to make us run. We won't.
The Chicago Tribune