The Image of a Threat

In “Disaster and Decentralization: American Cities and the Cold War”, Matthew Farish addresses the issue of decentralization in post-War America and the flight of homogenous populations to the suburbs. The author argues that the invention of the atomic bomb and the immense emphasis on the nuclear threat were largely responsible for this phenomenon. He notes that, “as part of the ‘intricate national discussion’ on city life after the Second World War, Kennan’s diagnosis of urban vice echoed a familiar, much older anti-city refrain, but it also acquired additional potency with the invention of the atomic bomb and postwar geopolitical uncertainty.” Indeed, after the announcement of the first Soviet nuclear test, an emphasis was put on moving ‘beyond the radiation zone’, the center of which was always in the city. The geopolitical uncertainty caused by the rivalry with the Soviet Union intensified the nuclear paranoia and pushed the American population out of the urban areas. In an attempt to compensate for this uncertainty, people found the need to conform to set social norms that revolved around suburban life, as it created a sense of security and untouchability represented by their suburban homes.

45963244-cachedThe fear of a nuclear attack that characterized the Cold War era was further worsened by the excessive exposure of the general population to the images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. A similar effect could be seen following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on World Trade Center. The extensive media coverage of the attacks and the subsequent reinforcement of their imagery have caused a dramatic rise in paranoia that was unprecedented since the earlier period of the Cold War.  Some of the effects if this phenomenon include the creation of the Patriot Act, the development of the role of the NSA, and the strengthening of airport security to counter the fear of flying. However, during the Cold War, the fear and paranoia could be attributed to a concrete threat that would affect whole area under attack — a nuclear bomb would destroy the whole city and its surroundings. The 9/11 attacks showed that the terrorist threat cannot be quantified or narrowed to a specific type of attack in a specific area — any part of the city could be subjected to any type of attack, and there was no way to predict where and what exactly would happen. As a result, the fear in post-9/11 America did not yield a homogenous response from the population, such as the widespread flight to the suburbs during the Cold War. Instead, the fear persisted and it was up to the government to take measures to reduce it.

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