WTC and the Power of Place

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Hawks and other jingoists — with the help of their media flacks — continue to exploit the dead, the suffering, and the devastation of the WTC attacks for their own political ambitions. To such people, the events of 9/11 were not so much an atrocity, as an opportunity to expand their power and promote their own agendas.

The media spent the anniversary of these attacks trying to wring as much emotion as possible from viewers, with virtually no effort directed to understanding what led a handful of men to undertake such actions. The mindset of the war-whoopers may have been inadvertently revealed in a radio talk-show host’s comment about the "celebration" of 9/11, then quickly correcting himself to say "commemoration."

The politically-correct explanation for these attacks is expressed in the now-familiar mantra "they hate us for our virtues; they despise our freedom, culture, and way of life." Any who question this are accused of all sorts of wickedness, with the most vocal condemnation directed against those of us who suggest that the root of such attacks is to be found in decades of a vicious and grasping American "foreign policy," particularly in the Middle East.

I am curious as to why these terrorists were attracted to the World Trade Center. If they were willing to kill themselves as an expression of their anger at the American culture, why didn’t they attack the Statue of Liberty, or Disneyland, or a Hollywood film studio? Why was the World Trade Center the attraction? In an effort to answer this question, I have turned to the study of "chaos."

When I first became familiar with chaos theory in the mid-1980s, I realized that here was the most effective means for analyzing both the disorderly nature of politically directed systems and the orderly nature of spontaneously ordered social practices. We are taught that the authority of the state ultimately rests upon its presumed superiority in obtaining information that will permit the management of human behavior toward socially desirable ends. This attitude is found in the maxim "the more complex society becomes, the greater the need for government."

But the study of chaos reveals the fallacy of this assumption. Complex systems are inherently unpredictable, with tendencies for error greatly increasing over both time and space. Because our capacity to predict is dependent upon knowing the nature and extent of every factor influencing a given situation, and because it is impossible to ever marshal such complete information, statist claims to be able to direct social policies are inherently flawed. The collapse of the meticulously planned Soviet Union, as well as the failure of strategic defense planners to prevent the attacks of 9/11, are but two of the more visible examples of the truths available in the study of chaos.

To those unfamiliar with the deeper meanings of chaos, it is imagined that this theory does no more than remind us of the second law of thermodynamics (i.e., the tendency for closed systems to move from a state of order to disorder). But chaos theory is far richer than that, for it also helps us to discover the orderly nature of seemingly disordered events; and to understand that what we identify as "disorder" may only reflect our lack of awareness of hidden patterns regularizing what appear to us as random events.

Through the study of chaos, we discover the presence of attractors within systems. An attractor represents the organizing principle that brings regularity to a system (i.e., "attracts" orderliness). An earthquake fault line can be regarded as an attractor for geologic forces operating in an area subject to plate tectonics while, on a social level, an estate sale can be regarded as an attractor for antique dealers.

There are many who believe that the marketplace is a form of undisciplined, disordered confusion; and that political intervention must protect the public from such unpredictable conduct. To those who understand the dynamics of the marketplace, however, the seeming chaos is underlain with processes through which the interplay of competing interests provides incentives for orderly behavior. In the language of "chaos," the pricing system of the marketplace is an "attractor" that brings buyers and sellers together to engage in transactions that benefit both.

My interest in the study of attractors within systems has led me to speculate about the relationship of events to the physical setting in which such events occur. Some have referred to this possible phenomenon as the "power of place." To what extent, in other words, are events interconnected with the geographic location in which they take place? I don’t mean to imply any sort of "magical" explanation of events. I have long adhered to causal explanations for happenings but, with an awareness of the complex and interconnected nature of the world, our ideas about causation may have to undergo change.

Richard Weaver’s classic observation that "ideas have consequences" may provide us with a starting point. But it is also true that "actions have consequences," and those consequences take us beyond the simple causal explanations implicit in the proposition "A hits B, B falls on the floor." The study of chaos makes us aware that simplistic, linear explanations no longer suffice for our understanding of a complicated world. Scientific inquiry has helped us move beyond superficial explanations of behavior, and to examine less-apparent influences.

Let me emphasize, here, the speculative nature of my inquiry. I have reached no firm conclusions, but only formulate questions based upon what I see as interesting parallels. Whether there are any causal explanations or only interesting coincidences, remains to be seen.

My first interest in the question of a possible relationship between events and geography arose when I was living in a city in the Midwest. Within the center of the city was a piece of commercial property whose various occupants consistently failed to succeed in whatever businesses they conducted. A restaurant, night club, and advertising company, were just three of the businesses different owners conducted on the premises, all without success. This land was on the main thoroughfare through the city, and other businesses in the area all thrived, in spite of the fact that the physical nature of their land was seemingly indistinguishable. There appeared to be something inherent in the location that led one business after another to fail on that site.

My curiosity about "power of place" led me to inquire into the underlying conditions that attracted creative energies to Manchester, rather than Marseilles, as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution; or Florence, instead of Naples, as the center for the Renaissance. What forces converged to bring such creative minds as Emerson, Thoreau, Louisa May and Bronson Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, to live within walking distance of one another in Concord, Massachusetts?

My attention has also been directed to the question of why Austria became a focal point for the creativity that included composers Haydn, Schubert, Mozart, Johann Strauss, and Mahler; such pioneers as Gregor Mendel in genetics, and Sigmund Freud in psychology; Franz Kafka; and a number of geniuses who gave us the Austrian school of economics. Why did an interest in individual liberty develop so strongly in America, and not in Russia?

As with human behavior generally, numerous and complex factors can combine to produce either creative and peaceful consequences, or destructive and violent ends. Why do government schools, rather than private ones, tend to be the ones shot up by angry students? Why is it that some government postal workers, rather than employees of private delivery services, are the ones to "go postal" and shoot their supervisors or fellow workers?

Why is it that Washington, D.C. — which is the producer and manager of much of the political violence in our world — also has the highest murder rate of any major American city? Is this only a matter of coincidence, or might it be that the coercive nature of this city’s activities has made it an attractor for violence in other forms?

Does my "power of place" hypothesis have anything to tell us about the dreadful events of 9/11? For those unfamiliar with the history of these buildings, a book by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, titled The Rockefellers, provides illuminating details. The World Trade Center project emerged as part of a plan by Rockefeller family interests to rehabilitate the lower Manhattan (i.e., Wall Street) section of New York, an area in which the family had substantial property interests. While there is nothing wrong with such an undertaking in and of itself, they resorted to state powers of eminent domain to acquire land needed for their proposed WTC. This led to a conflict with various small businesses and low-income residents who unsuccessfully challenged the taking in court.

After land for the WTC was taken by lawful force from its rightful owners, construction began. But as the building was nearing completion, there was a problem of finding a sufficient number of tenants. As Collier and Horowitz tell us, Nelson Rockefeller, as governor of the state, arranged to move a number of state offices to the WTC. This resulted in a forty-year lease for sixty floors in one of the buildings, with the state paying substantially more per square foot of space than were private tenants.

The WTC, in other words, was conceived, delivered, and nursed by many of the same corporate-state forces that have long directed American domestic and foreign policies. Its very origins reflect the neo-mercantilist premise that has long insinuated itself into our lives, namely, that state power may rightfully be exercised on behalf of commercial and industrial interests. This premise finds expression not only in terms of using eminent domain powers to take land from private owners, but employing military force to advance business and political interests abroad.

Is it implausible to suggest that, in both its creation and destruction, the WTC became an attractor for state-generated violence, in much the same way as Washington, D.C.? The war-lovers will reject such a possible explanation out of hand, but then men and women engaged in orgiastic fits of flag-waving are not inclined to reflection of any sort. Some will even suggest that my speculations amount to a defense of the attacks on the WTC, an absurdity expressive of minds unable to distinguish explanations from justifications.

As I stated at the outset, I admit to the speculative nature of my inquiries on this point. But the advance of human understanding — whether through philosophy or the sciences — has always depended upon men and women offering hypotheses whose unfamiliarity may evoke ridicule or contempt. There is no mysticism or magic implicit in what I suggest. To the contrary, one can identify various causal factors that help to explain the phenomena.

Perhaps, like the aftershocks of an earthquake, our disruptive and violent actions continue to reverberate deep within the bedrock of our physical and social environments.

The study of chaos compels us to delve deeper into the interconnectedness of a complex world in order that we may better understand the implications of our conduct. "They hate us for our goodness" may satisfy minds that are overwhelmed by the demands of complexity, but such childish explanations will not suffice for men and women who insist upon living with intelligence. If we are to live freely, decently, and creatively, we need to begin asking fundamentally new kinds of questions.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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