Security Theatre In Our Streets

The curious "crisis architecture" popping up in Western cities around the world.

A bollard, Wikipedia tells us, “is a sturdy, short, vertical post. The term originally referred to a post on a ship or quay used principally for mooring boats, but is now used, primarily in British English, to refer to posts installed to control road traffic and posts designed to prevent ram raiding and car ramming attacks.” 

For a time I lived in a city, Amsterdam, where bollards numbering in the tens of thousands have been a feature of the urban landscape for generations. I didn’t know them as bollards, but rather by the local word, Amsterdammertjes. They’re all identical – brown and about hip-high and shaped rather like humongous dildos, which, given the city’s international image, is not entirely inappropriate. Each of them has a vertical row of three X’s on it. (They’re crosses, actually: Christian crosses, an allusion to Amsterdam’s coat of arms.)

Amsterdammertjes were originally intended to separate the sidewalk from the street and protect buildings from traffic; later they also helped prevent illegal parking. But since they date back to an era before contemporary jihadist terrorism, they aren’t nearly strong enough to forestall deliberate car or truck attacks, only accidents involving relatively light, slow-moving vehicles. They’re quaint relics, widely beloved – although for years now municipal authorities, presumably recognizing their inutility, have been gradually removing them. If developments elsewhere in the Western world are any indication, however, the Amsterdammertjes will likely soon be replaced by solider objects – dividers capable of repelling deadly truck assaults of the sort committed on Bastille Day 2016 in Nice and last Halloween in New York. 

For the fact is that throughout the West, bollards – formidable ones – and other, usually less attractive such structures are steadily becoming ubiquitous, and, in the process, dramatically altering the faces of some of the world’s great cities. In Washington, D.C., they began to be installed on a serious scale almost immediately after 911. “The 5.5-mile ring of steel posts around the Capitol Building is one of the largest (and most uniform) of its kind in the world,” stated one report last summer. “The waist-high steel posts installed after 911 cost about $7,500 a pop, and reportedly can stop ‘an eight-ton truck barreling into them at 50 mph.‘” 

Last year saw the placement of huge, ugly concrete barriers in Sydney and Melbourne – and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called for even more of them. Similar barricades have cropped up in cities from Miami to Milan to Málaga. This past November saw the beginning of a project to install over eight thousand bollards along the Las Vegas Strip. Depending on the city, these new obstructions assume a wide range of forms and shapes. Some of them are just big, brutalist monstrosties that make no attempt to hide their identity and purpose. But others are designed to look like something else, or to be something else in addition to security barriers. 

The first ones I noticed in Oslo, when I lived there years ago, were placed outside the Parliament and doubled as planters. Now these planters are spreading all over town. As it happens, Norwegians recently commemorated Constitution Day, its answer to the Fourth of July. On this day, May 17, Oslo always fills with families in traditional costumes waving the national flag. I stayed home, but online I saw pictures of these partying patriots weaving their way around the planters. Children playfully jumped on them and kicked at them. They were having fun. But what do they know? For me, the sight of those planters turned what should have been a celebration of freedom into yet another occasion to ponder its opposite. They’re meant to be pretty, of course, and I guess they are – until you remind yourself what they are and why they’re there. After all, I can remember a time when such encroachments were unneeded. 

(The big feature of May 17, the way, is the “barnetog” – the parade of schoolchildren past the Royal Palace. A couple of days after May 17, I read that there were “extremely many cases of girls in hijab” in this year’s barnetog. The delegation from one Oslo school included 15 girls, all but one of them in hijab. Just sayin’.) 

Architectural Digest (AD) recently responded to the bollardification of the West by contemplating its aesthetic and functional aspects. According to AD, the new barriers thrown up on New York’s West Side Highway after the Halloween attack not only are ugly and “make the bike path essentially unusable” but wouldn’t be terribly successful at precluding vehicular jihad anyway. Still, New York legislators have introduced a bill that would authorize funding for 1500 more of them all over New York City. (That’s not all: the NYPD has quietly taken a variety of other measures, such as “shutting down some theater streets just before shows.”) 

Architects, noted AD, are seeking to make bollards “more hospitable” – which can mean not just camouflaging them as planters (or, in some cases, “seating areas”) but “possibly even constructing water features, which have often functioned as both setbacks and excellent security architecture.” Two years ago the magazine America ran an article about “Crisis Architecture” (a new term, apparently), which cited ever more ingenious examples of design elements – such as giant street-side letters that spell out the name of a place – that also serve as safety barriers.  

Well, three cheers for architectural innovation. But time and again, when these particular innovations are discussed, the subject that is delicately danced around is the fact that none of these radical changes in our lived environment would ever have been contemplated if not for the savagely loyal adherents of a faith that commands the murder of infidels. Indeed, what’s most remarkable about all of the discussion surrounding the advent of this new age of bollard-besmirched boulevards is the almost total absence of any reference to Islam – which is the sole reason why these objects (whether or not they are technically bollards, and whether they are handsome or hideous) are proliferating throughout our cities. On the contrary, even as mayors around the world order up bollards by the trainload, they continue to spout nonsense about the ways in which Islam has socially and culturally enriched their cities. 

For let’s make no mistake: even as these bollards represent a colossal transformation in the look and the experience of our cities, they are, in practical terms, laughably inadequate to their supposed objective. They’re lame, listless gestures in the direction of defending our civilization from an enemy that our government officials and news media routinely whitewash and appease – an enemy that, with few exceptions, they even refuse to name in connection with any of these security concerns, let alone confront with anything remotely resembling the resolve and determination necessary to ensure our ultimate victory. Although presented to us as bulwarks against barbarity, in reality they’re nothing more or less than emblems of our own suicidal half-heartedness in the face of steady subjugation. Like the TSA’s “security theater” at our airports, they’re pathetically feeble responses to a massive challenge –  ways of pretending to ourselves that we’re engaged in something other than a slow, polite surrender. 

The Norwegian children I saw gamboling in the streets of Oslo on May 17, blissfully unaware of the dark significance of those pretty planters that line the capital’s parade street, don’t recognize any of this now, needless to say. But the stark reality will become clear enough to them as they grow into adulthood and as the enemy’s conquest proceeds apace. And when – barring some continent-wide moral and psychological reversal, some sudden acquisition of cultural spine and self-assurance – the capitals of Western Europe finally fall, one after the other, and the bollards, no longer having any raison d’être, are hauled away, how will the children of today (who will then, of course, no longer be children) look upon them, except as tragic symbols of their parents’ and grandparents’ lack of values, vigor, and valor?