The fear

How cities reshape themselves when trust vanishes

A Burger King surrounded by blast barriers in Baghdad in 2008.
Donovan Wylie / Magnum Photos
A Burger King surrounded by blast barriers in Baghdad in 2008.

BEIRUT — Everything that people love and hate about cities stems from the agglomeration of humanity packed into a tight space: the traffic, the culture, the chance encounters, the anxious bustle. Along with this proximity come certain feelings, a relative sense of security or of fear.

Over the last 13 years I have lived in a magical succession of cities: Boston, Baghdad, New York, and Beirut. They all made lovely and surprising homes—and they all were distorted to varying degrees by fear and threat.

At root, cities depend on constant leaps of faith. You cross paths every hour with people of vastly different backgrounds and trust that you’ll emerge safely. Each act of violence—a mugging, a murder, a bombing—erodes that faith. Over time, especially if there are more attacks, a city will adapt in subtle but profound and insidious ways.


The bombing last week was a shock to Boston, and a violation. As long as it’s isolated, the city will recover. But three people have died, and more than 170 have been wounded, and the scar will remain. As we think about how to respond, it’s worth also considering what happens when cities become driven by fear.

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New York, Washington, and to a lesser extent the rest of America have exchanged some of the trappings of an open society for extra security since the Sept. 11 attacks. Metal detectors and guards have become fixtures at government buildings and airports, and it’s not unusual to see a SWAT team with machine guns patrolling in Manhattan. Police conduct random searches in subways, and new buildings feature barriers and setbacks that isolate them from the city’s pedestrian life.

Baghdad and Beirut, however, are reminders of the far greater changes wrought by wars and ubiquitous random violence. A city of about 7 million, low-slung Baghdad sprawls along the banks of the Tigris River. It’s the kind of place where almost everyone has a car, and it blends into expansive suburbs on its fringes. When I first arrived in 2003, the city was reeling from the shock-and-awe bombing and the US invasion. But it was the year that followed that slowly and inexorably transformed the way people lived. First, the US military closed roads and erected checkpoints. Then, militants started ambushing American troops and planting roadside bombs; the ensuing shootouts often engulfed passersby. Finally, extremists and sectarian militias began indiscriminately targeting Iraqi civilians and government personnel—in queues at public buildings, at markets, in mosques, virtually everywhere. Order crumbled.

Baghdad became a city of walls. Wealthy homeowners blocked their own streets with piles of gravel. Jersey barriers sprang up around every ministry, office, and hotel. As the conflict widened, entire neighborhoods were sealed off. People adjusted their commutes to avoid tedious checkpoints and areas with frequent car bombings. Drive times doubled or tripled. Long lines, with invasive searches, became an everyday fact of life. The geography of the city changed. Markets moved, even the old-fashioned outdoor kind where merchants sell livestock or vegetables. Entire sub-cities sprang up to serve Shia and Sunni Baghdadis who no longer could travel through each other’s areas.


Simple civic pleasures atrophied almost overnight. No one wanted to get blown up because they insisted on going out for ice cream. The famed riverfront restaurants went dormant; no more live carp hammered with a mallet and grilled before our eyes. The water-pipe joints in the parks went out of business. Most of the social spaces that defined the city shut down. Booksellers fled Mutanabe Street, the intellectual center of the city with its antique cafes. The amusement park at the Martyrs Monument shut its gates. Hotel bar pianists emigrated. Dust settled over the playgrounds and fountains at the strip of grassy family restaurants near Baghdad University.

In Beirut, where I moved with my family earlier this year, a generation-long conflict has Balkanized the city’s population. Here, most groups no longer trust each other at all. From 1975 to 1991 the city was split by civil war, and people moved where they felt safest. A cosmopolitan city fragmented into enclaves. Christians flocked to East Beirut, spawning a dozen new commercial hubs. Shiites squatted in the village orchards south of Beirut, and within a decade had built a city-within-a-city almost a million strong—the Dahieh, or “the Suburb.” The original downtown became a demilitarized zone, its Arabesque arcades reduced to rubble, and today has been rebuilt as a sterile, Disney-like tourist and office sector. Ras Beirut, my neighborhood, deteriorated from proudly diverse (and secular) to “Sunni West Beirut,” although it still boasts pockets of stubborn coexistence. In today’s Beirut, my block, where a Druze warlord lives across the street from a church and subsidizes the parking fees of his Shia, Sunni, and Christian neighbors, is a stark exception.

Mixing takes place, but tentatively, and because of frequent outbreaks of violence over the years, Beirutis have internalized the reflexes to fight, defend, and isolate. The result is a city alight with street life, cafes, and boutiques but which can instantaneously shift to war footing. One friend ran into his bartender on a night off at a checkpoint with bandoliers of bullets strapped to his chest. Even when the city appears calm, most people have laid in supplies in case an armed flare-up forces them to stay in their homes for a week. My friend’s teenage daughter keeps a change of clothes in her schoolbag in case she can’t return to her house. Uniformed private guards are everywhere, in every park, on every promenade, at every mall.


Within a few weeks of our move to Beirut this year, my 5-year-old son traded his old fantasy, in which he played the doctor and assigned us roles as patients and nurses, for a new one: security guard. While we were setting up for a yard party, he arranged a few plastic chairs by the door. “I’ll check people here,” he declared. He also asked me a lot of questions about the heavily armed soldiers who stand watch on our street: “Will the army shoot me if I make a mistake?”


This is not the childhood he would have in Boston, even after this week. War-molded cities are nightmare reflections of failed states, places where government has gone into free fall, police don’t or can’t do their jobs, and normal life feels out of reach. Beirut is a kind of warning: Physically it appears normal on most days. But trust is gone. The public sphere feels wobbly and impermanent.

Jersey barriers sprang up around every ministry, office, and hotel. As the conflict widened, entire neighborhoods were sealed off.

Boston is still lucky, with assets that Beirut lost generations ago; it has functional institutions, old communities with tangled but shared histories, and unifying cultural traditions. Boston has police that can get a job done and a baseball team that ties together otherwise divided corners of the city. One lesson of the city I live in now is that circumstances can sever these lifelines faster than we expect. Our connections require continued, perhaps redoubled, care. Without trust, a city can still be a magnificent place to live. Until all at once, it isn’t.

Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at