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December 21, 2004

Feral Cities


Richard Norton of the Naval War College has written about this new menace.

He defines a 'feral city" as a metropolis with over a million people in a state whose government has lost the ability to maintain the rule of law within the city's boundries yet remains a functioning actor in the greater international system.

He offers Mogadishu as the world's first such place, and points out that many other urban areas are on their way to such devastation.

Margaret Atwood, in her superb, breathtaking novel "Oryx and Crake," takes you into a feral city, in an imagined dystopian future that seems increasingly likely to occur.


Her book is riveting and compelling.

I suspect it didn't do all that well commercially precisely because it seems all too likely to occur, and was therefore too frighteningly realistic to become a best-seller.

We like our fears best when they seem unlikely to really take place.

Yesterday's Washington Post Travel section Q&A featured a response to a reader thinking about a trip to Rio.

From the "A":

    Rio de Janeiro saw a wave of bold attacks against tourists in November, including the shooting of a Spaniard during a mugging, the stabbing of a Japanese woman in front of the well-known Copacabana Palace hotel and the robbery of 20 Angolans on a group tour.

    Peter Tarlow, an international travel security consultant, recently returned from Rio, where he gave a lecture to the city's police officers.

    Tarlow said Rio's favelas, or slums, in the past had been contained to the hills above Rio but are now creeping closer to the city's popular tourist areas.

    Tarlow suggests that you don't walk anywhere alone and always carry enough money to satisfy a robber if you're approached.

    On the beach, don't leave anything unattended; if you want to swim, have one person stay on shore to watch your possessions.

    The State Department also warns Americans to avoid city buses, to be cautious when using ATMs and not to venture into the favelas.

Ken Stier of the New York Times wrote about these frightening places in the December 12 New York Times magazine; his story follows.

    Feral Cities

    This year, the American military was forced to relearn painful lessons in urban warfare.

    Insurgents in Falluja and Najaf were able to neutralize much of America's technological superiority and inflict costly casualties.

    It remains to be seen whether the retaking of those Iraqi cities proves to be a Pyrrhic victory.

    But renewed urban combat is hardly the only global urban crisis.

    In a World Policy Journal article published this spring, the national security experts Peter Liotta and James Miskel argued that the ''failed state,'' which received so much attention in the 1990's, is being supplemented by the emergence of failed cities, where civil order succumbs to powerful criminal gangs.

    From Brazil to South Africa, these gangs pose a variety of nontraditional security threats - from unchecked black-marketeering and the smuggling of people, guns and drugs to public-health breakdowns and alliances with terrorists.

    Richard Norton, a Naval War College scholar who has developed a taxonomy of what he calls feral cities, says that there are numerous places slipping toward Mogadishu, perhaps the only fully feral city nowadays.

    As public services disintegrate, residents are forced to hire private security or pay criminals for protection.

    The police in Brazil have fallen back on a containment policy against gangs ruling the favelas, while the rich try to stay above the fray, fueling the busiest civilian helicopter traffic in the world (there are 240 helipads in Sao Paulo; there are 10 in New York City).

    In Johannesburg, much of downtown, including the stock exchange, has been abandoned to squatters and drug gangs.

    In Mexico City, crime is soaring despite the presence of 91,000 policemen.

    Karachi, Pakistan, where 40% of the population lives in slums, plays host to gangland violence and to Al Qaeda cells.

    As cities around the world descend into disorder, the United States may have to step up training local militaries to undertake armed interventions.

    Writing in The Naval War College Review last fall, Norton warned that ''traditionally, problems of urban decay and associated issues, such as crime, have been seen as domestic issues best dealt with by internal security or police forces. That will no longer be an option.''


December 21, 2004 at 03:01 PM | Permalink


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