Cities at War… and Its Diverse Manifestations

Only a few days ago, most of us would not have known that a whole new vector was in play in our big cities – cities in the US, in Europe, in Iran, in China, and most probably in locations we are not yet recognizing.

Cities have long been sites for far more diverse conflicts than the typical resident is likely to realize -partly because a big city contains multiple worlds that rarely connect with each other. In our big cities we are able to have strong links with an enormous diversity of people in an equally enormous diversity of neighborhoods.

But today we confront a condition that cuts across these diverse urban settings: the rise of a killer virus – silent and free to move just about anywhere, easily cutting across what we think of as barriers, accessing our bodies silently, leaving a trace that only becomes visible days, many days, after it invaded us.

Silence, mobility, and effectiveness are its tools. It does not need the big guns our culture seems to be so proud of.

How do we humans respond to this silent, mobile, invisible presence that does not function as a familiar or recognizable enemy or a killer, that probably does not understand us as an enemy, that functions in terms of rules that are not our rules, and  that we are unlikely to see, that we discover exist when it makes us ill, often several days after it entered our bodies.

Our response is centered in an abstraction: what attacks us is something we cannot see, but about which there is now considerable knowledge. We also know that it has been there for longer than we realized – yes, it is invisible, quiet, effective, and a member of a vast ‘family’… a family that we cannot overcome as individuals.

What to do?! Panic rarely helps. Knowledge can get us only so far. Similarly, with our family and friends—there is only so much help they can give us. Yes, at its most extreme, we are alone.

Our body contains both our capacities to fight back and our limits. And yes, we have witnessed or seen friends who went under in war and now we see them go under in their own homes at the hands of an invisible something, that makes no noise, does not announce itself. We sense that more deaths will happen before it all calms down. We also know that we are witnesses to a condition we are not used to and we cannot simply destroy or kick out, as we have done so often across time.

It all leaves us with a few truths and a sense of our limits.

This virus does not think of itself as our enemy. We might see it that way, but mother nature does not.

We know that across time, especially in this past century, we have produced enormous innovationsbut they have come at a high price. Mother nature did not ask us to do this, or offer us these options, or demand that we develop the most powerful tools when it comes to destroying her.  She gave us life and food to survive. That is a big gift. For a long time and still in many situations today, we learnt from her how to make land grow, the sun give us light, and the moon help us rest.

Perhaps she is telling us something today —something like “ you overdid it, mate.” We did overdo it. 

We have increasingly lost control over a rapidly growing range of innovations and conditions. We are on the other side of the curve. Most of us, cannot see or understand, or grasp this. But we also know that across the globe –from the people of the Sahel to Minnesota’s farmers—many in the new generations can see what we can no longer recognize. And they are telling us: Enough! 

“Cities at War” by Saskia Sassen and Mary Kaldor is now out, Columbia University Press, March 2020.