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Urban Disaster


After the horror over the sheer loss of life, one of the first reactions to the Oklahoma bombing was to say, "This proves it can happen anywhere." Oklahoma City is not New York or Los Angeles or Washington, not an obvious link-town with foreign places, not on either of our crowded municipal coasts. The heartland was struck.

But the statement is untrue. It could not have happened on a farm. Terrorists do not blow up wheat fields. Willie Sutton robbed banks because that is where the money is. People blow up cities because that is where the people are. Oklahoma City may be seen as hicksville in some parts of New York, but it is a major city to those who live in and around it. The bombers certified that fact.

People are vulnerable in cities, where they cluster. That is one reason Americans have always treated cities as suspect if not downright sinful. They are where catastrophe happens. We all know about the Chicago fire. But at the time of that famous disaster, a whole county in Wisconsin was wiped out by the most destructive fire in our history, one that killed 1,500 people -- the Peshtigo fire. We never hear of it because it does not fit our picture of urban trouble. As a rural event, it is outside our normal expectations, and has faded from our communal memory.

Thomas Jefferson set the tone for dealing with our cities. He VTC wrote in his "Notes on Virginia" that government would be fatally corrupted here when we "get piled upon one another in large cities as in Europe." For him, only the virtuous yeoman in the fields could be relied on as a solid supporter of democracy.

We never had a sacred city, divinely founded, at the center of our national cult. We never had a temple like Jerusalem's, a Parthenon like Athens', a tomb of St. Peter like Rome's. Other civilizations have found corruption in their cities, but the cities began as sacred things.

Our cities began unholy, entirely secular, cursed by Jefferson and all his heirs. That is why it is so easy for our politicians to cut off funds for cities, those lost causes, and so hard for them to cut off "farm aid" even when it goes to agribusiness fat-cats.

One aspect of the tragedy of the Oklahoma bombing is that it will feed this American sense that cities are a place of danger, catastrophe and destruction, places we can do little to redeem.

I write this column from North Carolina, where the National Humanities Center has convened a conference on the plight of the cities. William Julius Wilson began the conference with a speech on the need suburbs have for central cities, as places that created the communication, transportation and sophistication off which the suburbs feed. But the conferees' work has been undermined even as they spoke.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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