Wednesday, 24 June 2009

They Use the Train

Pudding Mill Lane DLR Station.

"Spies, terrorists, smugglers and other stealthy types use trains in Western Europe because they are fast, cheap and efficient," says Sebastian Rotella in this mysterious column in the LA Times, first spotted by Geoff Manaugh. As Geoff discusses in his post on the subject, Rotella uses the fact that railways and stations have been a venue for intrigue in popular culture for many decades as a starting point for a discussion of the alleged fondness of modern terrorists for trains. And by "modern" Rotella means Islamist, drawing murky cconnections between recent terror plots and the fact that "train stations tend to be in working-class immigrant areas where desperadoes find shelter, weapons, false documents and other tools of the trade". There follows some borderline-Orientalist musing about the exoticism and hidden danger of one such neighbourhood in Brussels. "Campaign posters of local politicians with first names like Ahmed and Fatima ... a music shop blaring desert rhythms ..." You get the picture.

Aside from its cultural insensitivity, what's really perplexing about this column is its suspicion towards the train. Rotella, an American, might find mass train use something of a novelty, so the thought of terror on rails caught his imagination. It must be the train's inherent cosmopolitanism, its relative classlessness, its blurring of individuality, that makes it suspect. Cars and vans are also very popular with terrorists - so are planes, and concealing clothing, and all areas of public assembly. This is what terrorism is: it's the weaponisation of the public domain. As Peter Sloterdijk says in his study of terrorism and modernity, Terror from the Air (my review): "Terrorism can only be understood when grasped as a form of exploration of the environment from the perspective of its destructibility."

I'm not drawing a comparison between Rotella's insensitivity and an ideology that has killed millions, but reading his article, I thought of Norman Cohn's extraordinary book Warrant for Genocide, an exploration of the history of so-called "Protocols of the Elders of Zion". This was a notorious antisemitic forgery that was among the inspirations for the Holocaust. If you ever fancy staring into the heart of hatred at its most surreal and malignant, Cohn's study of these documents is the book for you.

The Protocols claim to outline a Jewish plot for world domination, and - in line with the fascist ideologies they inspired - are fiercely anti-modern and hostile towards the city and modern technology. An aspect of this hostility is the author's specific concerns about underground railways (cutting-edge technology in the mid to late 19th century), which according to the Protocols were built by the conspirators in order to plant explosives under capital cities.

As is standard for the Protocols, this is paranoia on steroids. The author doesn't just fear that the conspirators might use subways, he suggests that the subways have been constructed specifically for the purpose of destroying industrial capitals. Their usefulness as a form is mass transit is purely a ruse. What a ruse!

This kind of fear remains current. Even before the 11 September attacks, the "conspiracy community" attached much significance to the fact that the Bin Laden family made much of its fortune in construction and therefore had the ability to mine infrastructure. A near-identical claim has been made about Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure. In these different modes of thinking, two different kinds of paranoia are evident. There's conventional terror-paranoia, fear that the environment is being exploited by rogues intent on destruction; and enhanced terror-paranoia, fear that the environment was designed and built by rogues intent on destruction. Paul Virilio's "integral accident" gone bad; gone worse.

Virilio explores the use of simulators to probe technology for potential accidents - accidents are, after all, built-in to technology, the invention of the aeroplane was the invention of the plane crash. If you're designing and building something that's meant to self-destruct, use of simulators and the machinery of "health and safety" becomes, in effect, what Sloterdijk called terrorism: "A form of exploration of the environment from the perspective of its destructibility." The machinery of "health and safety" and contingency planning involves the mass-manufacture of conceptual terrorist attacks.

Mention of the "health and safety" complex brings me to a point related to all this infrastructural anxiety: high-vis jackets. High-visibility jackets are fascinating, and almost certainly a subject I will return to, so I'll keep my thoughts here brief. It is a strange facet of our modern society (in Britain at least) that the construction, maintenance, transport and security industries have adopted the same uniform. There are entirely practical health-and-safety reasons for this, of course. But while the high-vis vest makes you more visible to moving machinery, it has the opposite effect for society at large. As one of the photographers on my recent stroll around the Olympic site said, "if you ever want to be invisible, wear a high-vis vest". And, in a curious way, they are the uniform of capital interacting with the environment. As Iain Sinclair suggested in Sorry Meniscus, the Thatcherite-Blairite money shot is a group of men with hardhats on and "tweetie-pie waistcoats" over their suits breaking ground with a gleaming shovel. "Britain is working. Hands-on management. Optimism. Good humour."

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