New tools, new complications in fight to keep cities, nations safe

By Tim Sullivan ,AP

NEW DELHI — For generations, the world’s cities have struggled to keep themselves safe.

“Wall Street Explosion Kills 30; Injures 300,” The New York Times’ front page proclaimed after a bomb ripped through New York City’s financial district. “Red Plot Seen in Blast.”

It was September 1920. The bomb was carried by a horse-drawn cart. The bombers, suspected to be Italian anarchists, were never caught.

There are times today when it can seem that back in some hazy bygone era — before a Monday evening bomb tore through a Bangkok temple, or train bombers terrorized Madrid in 2004, before two jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center on a clear September morning — the world was not so dangerous.

And in some ways the world is more deadly. Global networks of extremists can now launch attacks from Kenya to Iraq to suburban Washington, D.C., while modernity’s worst-case scenarios — nuclear or biological attacks, for example — can make that carriage-pulled Wall Street bomb seem like a toy.

And yet: “We live in a much safer world now,” said Ajai Sahni, a longtime New Delhi-based scholar of political violence, policing and security issues. “The world was far more dangerous in a time when war was an accepted method of intervention” and when angering a local political boss could mean “your head would be on a stick.”

In Bangkok this week, that comparison was little comfort. The city of about 10 million is struggling in the aftermath of an unexplained bombing Monday that killed at least 20 people and injured more than 120, and was further shaken the next day by a second blast that caused no casualties but police say may be related.

“We have always been so peaceful,” said Chondej Chaiyanun, a 33-year-old Bangkok furniture importer. He said the first blast had concerned him, but it was the second explosion that “made me feel like Bangkok might not be so safe.”

Once, there was a simple way for cities to thwart lone attackers, and those operating in small groups. Thick walls, from New Delhi to Florence, allowed guards to monitor access to cities and filter out some dangers.

Today, the fluidity of the modern world makes monitoring a city desperately complicated. Hundreds of thousands of commuters flood into major cities every day; the population of some American cities more than doubles on a work day. Then there is tourism: Thailand welcomed nearly 25 million tourists last year, and Jerusalem, a city of 800,000, can see over 3.5 million travelers annually.

At the same time, it has become easier for attacks to draw the attention violent extremists crave. A couple decades ago, most of the world would have seen the Bangkok bombing reduced to just a few newspaper paragraphs, but today, news of violence jumps quickly and fiercely across continents. Photos and video from the bombing began spilling onto social media almost immediately after it occurred.

So how do you protect a city where so many people — so many potential dangers — are coming and going?

It has become an eternal question in Jerusalem, and deeply relevant after a series of attacks over the past year. A series of barriers, from tall concrete walls to strings of barbed wire, along with a sophisticated Israeli intelligence apparatus and security coordination with Palestinian authorities, have helped stem years of carefully planned and highly deadly suicide bombings, Israeli officials say.

But walls can do little against the wave of lone-wolf attacks that have swept the country as Palestinians, often with no known militant affiliation, attack Israelis with guns or knives or by driving vehicles into crowds.