Sign Up

Appreciating Civilization Risk Once Again

Has terrorism sent transportation technology back a century?

March 8, 2003

Has terrorism sent transportation technology back a century?

Oh, the marvels of technology. We often forget that the comforts of modern life are unparalleled in the history of humankind. From safe and comfortable air travel to reliable interstate highways, elevators and suspension bridges, there are so many things we take for granted these days.

But once upon a time, all these comforts were brand new. In fact, the forces of anti-modernity often considered these improvements to life on earth as acts of heresy — of challenging god and the whole established order.

Let's go back in time over 100 years ago — to the late 19th century. It is inconceivable to think of people back then traveling as much as we do today.

In those days, travel — particularly international travel — was an inherently risky and expensive affair. The modes of travel were less sure than they are today. Even the Titanic, much vaunted as the largest and most lavish vessel of its time — and designed to be "unsinkable" — sank on its very first voyage, leading to the deaths of 1,500 people.

Furthermore, for all but the very wealthy, traveling was uncomfortable. Imagine traveling across Russia with the Trans Siberian railway — or across the Atlantic in a less than luxurious cruise liner.

True, people back then did not worry about being targeted as a "Westerner" by hostile terrorist groups once abroad. Instead, they worried about other very real threats like dysentery, malaria, TB — or other diseases.

Travel has become less dangerous, more predictable — and certainly more efficient — in modern times. Take something as simple as wide-span bridges and tunnels.

Although we take them for granted, these were major feats of engineering achievement.

They provided benefits — such as eliminating the time-consuming need for switching to boats for passage — that were unthinkable just decades before. Never mind the benefits of high-speed travel, especially through the air.

But all of these achievements came with a significant price attached. As excited as people were about these innovations, they were actually quite nervous about using them.

As a consequence, the act of boarding an airplane, of driving over a bridge, of going through a tunnel used to fill lots of people’s stomachs with plenty of butterflies. As exciting and convenient as those innovations were, quite a few folks found they did not quite have the stomach for using all that technology.

Over time, the risk factor typically associated with technological innovations vanished. Except for a few hyper-nervous human beings, for most of us using all those bridges, tunnels and airplanes was an exercise that, for the most part, sank into everybody’s subconscious.

And so it used to be. For Americans, the events of 9/11 represent a significant march back in time — by a whole century. All of a sudden, the act of driving over, say, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco or the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, becomes a very deliberate decision once again.

Even if it is for just a fleeting moment, people think about the risks of driving over the bridge. The worry, of course, is not about the bridge crumbling due to a failed design or engineering calculation.

Rather, it is about the Ryder truck that may be loaded down with explosives.

As a consequence, people crossing that bridge, coming out of that tunnel or deboarding from that airplane can once again be found to congratulate themselves about the successful accomplishment of their mission.

The advent of terrorism in the United States thus represents, to a large extent, a throwback to times long considered well past. All that transportation technology, presumed to be not just a birth right of humankind, but a precondition of modern life is back to being viewed as risky business.

Who says that life does not move in a circle?

More on this topic