The Geography of Terror

By Susan L. Cutter

As the nation continues to rebound from the aftermath of September 11, 2001, academic geographers and those in the private and public sectors continue to demonstrate how our science and practice can best be used to understand and respond to this adaptive threat. Geography is uniquely suited to enhance and advance our understanding of terrorism. As a discipline, geography has the analytical capabilities to process, analyze, and visualize spatial information in both historical and real-time contexts. At the same time, geography has a cadre of intellectual resources that examine questions related to why terrorism arises in different parts of the world and the underlying social, political, and economic forces that foment it. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, there is a cohort of practitioners of geography who put this knowledge base to use in responding to public policy concerns.

How geographically informed is our current homeland security policy? Let's take one example. In early February 2003, the Homeland Security Advisory System raised the threat conditions from yellow (significant risk of terrorist attacks) to orange (a high risk of terrorist attacks), and by the end of the month the levels were reduced back to yellow. Originally implemented in March 2002 (at the yellow alert level), the Homeland Security Advisory System is designed to disseminate information regarding the risks of terrorist activities to local, state, and federal agencies as well as the American public.The threat levels are based on risk information (the probability of an attack and its gravity or potential consequences) and the credibility of that information. The various threat levels activate actions to 1) increase federal, state, and local response capabilities and 2) implement protective actions to lessen the vulnerability of people, places, or structures.Public responses to the recent threat level increase ranged from increased purchases of duct tape and plastic (at the suggestion of Homeland Security officials) to mild amusement about all the fuss. Geography has more than a half-century's worth of experience in understanding and responding to hazards-be they from extreme natural events such as earthquakes or tornadoes, technological failures such chemical accidents, or from human-induced sources such as terrorist bombing. This research suggests that warning messages must be detailed in their content and targeted to specific areas or groups in order to heeded, neither of which occurred here.The advice to prepare a general disaster supply kit is consistent with recommendations from FEMA and the Red Cross in household preparations for severe weather and earthquakes. However, the additional suggestion for duct tape and plastic served to heighten anxiety about an impending threat, not reduce it.

Were some regions and residents in those places correct in assuming that the increased threat levels did not apply to them, because not all of them have the same level of risk? Should threat levels be determined nationally and applied at that scale, or modified for local variability still using the national nomenclature? Geography helps to understand the local variability in the threat, its potential detection, and ways to reduce it.Collaborations between local, state, and federal communities on geo-referenced data and its management will go a long way in providing homeland security. The use of geographic information is essential in securing America's homeland, but to do so requires a fundamental understanding geographical principles and techniques.

The knowledge base on emergency response and the spatial impacts of disaster consequences are quite well developed within the discipline, yet the community lacks the human resource base to address more fundamental concerns on the geographical dimensions of terrorism. Shortly after the September 11, 2001 attack, the Association of American Geographers began to develop a national research agenda on the geographical dimensions of terrorism, a process designed to enhance the nation's research infrastructure in addressing this important public policy issue. The Geographical Dimensions of Terrorism project (GDOT), funded by the Geography and Regional Science program at the National Science Foundation, held its first workshop in January 2002 where priority research themes initially were formulated. Further conversations with a broader constituency of geographic researchers and practitioners refined the themes and a consensus agenda emerged centered on three broad areas: 1) geospatial data and technologies infrastructure research; 2) regional and international research related to the root causes of terrorism; and 3) vulnerability science and hazards research. Action items and research questions were developed in each area (http://www.aag.org/News/godt.html).

In the area of geospatial data and technologies research, we need to establish a distributed national geospatial infrastructure as a foundation for homeland security. This infrastructure will serve multiple needs and users from local governments to national homeland security, and range in scope from economic development to environmental monitoring. Further, we need to establish a Geography Division within the Department of Homeland Security to advise on important concerns to the GIScience community and the nation such as geospatial information sharing, data security, and basic data needs assessment. These action items are derived from fundamental geographical research questions such as: What are the underlying research and technical challenges in developing a functionally integrated (at various spatial scales) geospatial infrastructure for homeland security? What data are necessary and in what form? How can transformational technologies such as GPS, remote sensing, and mobile computing become more interoperable to enhance disaster response capabilities including distributed decision-making? How can we identify the spatial linkages and interdependencies in critical infrastructure? How can we more effectively link GIScience to regional studies to improve data collection and our understanding of regional complexity? With the advent of more mobile computing, how do we train the next generation of geographical information scientists to not only have technical sophistication but to also have regional knowledge and foreign field experience?

Foreign fieldwork has not been the norm within the discipline in recent decades, with budget cuts in foreign study programs and interest waning among graduate students. Instead many students (and their advisors) preferred to focus on domestic problems rather than engage in foreign area fieldwork. In many ways, we have a created a "lost" generation of geographic researchers who do not possess foreign area expertise and lack the most basic of all geographical skills, regional analysis and synthesis. This is not unique to geography, as area studies and international studies programs all saw declining enrollments in the 1980s and 1990s. We need to develop systematic efforts to enhance regionally specific and international research and training to help guide our understanding of the root causes of terrorism. A number of questions prompt this concern. How do we reinvigorate regional studies and expertise in universities and colleges and among practitioners during tight budget times? How might improved understanding of geographical differences (culture, language, ideology) in schools and among the public foster a greater appreciation for diversity and the interconnectedness of the modern world? What are the spatial networks of flows of information and capital and how are these used to foster or deter terrorism? How can regional analysis become more informed analytically through the use of geographical information science?

Geography and geographical information science have played an important role in the nation's disaster history beginning with understanding the human impacts of the catastrophic Mississippi floods in the 1940s to the more recent attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Geographers bring an understanding of the relationship between environmental processes and human responses to them. With the improvements in geographic information science, geographers now have a greater ability to assist in and improve rescue, relief, and recovery operations, and to help reduce the threats and vulnerability from extreme events, including mitigating their impacts. However, we need improvements in data, methods, and spatial models for conducting vulnerability assessments and in understanding the resilience of communities during times of crises. A number of questions remain unanswered and require further research. How do we link the vulnerability of people and places to terrorism and to other environmental threats? Are the patterns and processes the same? Is there a differential susceptibility to threats based on geographic location? How do we prepare for this? How does location (or locality) influence preparedness activities?

The recently published, The Geographical Dimensions of Terrorism (Routledge Press 2003) is a good place to begin exploring many of these issues. Based on background papers from the AAG-sponsored GDOT workshop and commissioned papers, this book provides a detailed synthesis on the role of geographical inquiry and technologies in combating terrorism. The papers cover a breadth of topics such as the geographical nexus of public health, law enforcement and hazards, the geographies of inclusion and exclusion and insurrections, the use of geospatial data and technologies in times of crises, defining and delineating critical infrastructure, bioterrorism and agro-terrorism, and how one builds a safer, yet still open society. I encourage you to read this fascinating account of how geography and geographical information science can work in tandem to inform us on the nature of terrorism and the challenges we face in making the nation and the world a safer place to live, work, and raise children.


Published Friday, April 11th, 2003

Written by Susan L. Cutter



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