Traffic jam

On butterfly effects and terror

5 minutes to read
Jan Blommaert

For once I could not resist the temptations of disaster tourism, and so I went out to watch ... a traffic jam. 

It was a  special one, though. During the dark and rainy evening rush of Tuesday 21 November 2017, a truck lost part of its cargo on the Antwerp Ring highway, just about a mile from where I live. The Antwerp Ring is one of Europe's busiest highways, chronically congested even during off-peak times. The spilled cargo consisted of a particular type of liquid silicon - a sticky and slippery substance not just covering the road but seeping into the concrete top layer of the highway, rendering two of the five lanes (and one major exit from the Ring) no longer accessible for traffic. A full 36 hours later, this was still the case, since highly specialized equipment and personnel are required to clean this mess up..

The effects were humongous: the accident resulted in the worst traffic situation in Belgium of the year so far, with record-length traffic jams and a catastrophically congested city and wider region, and with knock-on effects in an area of several hundreds of kilometers around Antwerp. And this is exactly why I absolutely wanted to visit that site. Disaster tourism became, in actual fact, disaster meditation.

I got drawn to this spot because this particular incident offers a copy-book illustration of a butterfly effect.

I got drawn to this spot because this particular incident, happening at this particular time and place and in this particular way, offers a copy-book illustration of a butterfly effect: a seemingly insignificant minute event causing ever-broadening ripple effects of gigantic scope and scale. While I was watching the choreography of trucks and cars in the endless traffic jam, I couldn't stop thinking about these ripple effects. Naturally, the traffic crisis led to a good number other (minor) traffic accidents involving nervous and stressed-out drivers, and triggering further traffic jams in the process. 

Tens of thousands of car and truck drivers were directly and indirectly affected, meaning that the schedules on which these people had organized their activities were disrupted. Perhaps these drivers' families would have dinner much later than planned, children would not be put to bed in time, and undoubtedly there must have been intense mobile phone traffic between people stuck in the traffic cataclysm around Antwerp, and their worried, upset or sad loved ones at home. Other people may have arrived late at work, forcing still others to work overtime or aversely affecting the quality of services. Ships in the Antwerp harbor would be delayed because trucks couldn't leave or arrive in time, disturbing the just-in-time patterns of contemporary shipping, and possibly having effects in places such as Singapore, Durban or Hamburg. Shops and businesses would not be supplied in time, resulting in customers not getting their eggs for breakfast, or vital medical supplies not reaching hospitals and pharmacies. There would be tremendous costs involved in all of this - lost labor time for people stuck in traffic for hours, to name just one, And so on, and so forth: there is no end to the ripple effects we can imagine as attached, directly or indirectly, to this incident. 

About indirect effects: these days, many people have traffic-information apps installed on their smartphones, suggesting optimal trajectories that avoid obstacles such as road works and traffic jams. What happened on the 21st of November was quite interesting: as soon as the Antwerp Ring was partly closed, these apps started suggesting the same alternative routes for thousands of affected drivers - resulting in more traffic jams elsewhere (or in the reports of some drivers, everywhere). So much for Artificial Intelligence.

The incident itself, then. What is the statistical chance that this truck, carrying this nasty chemical substance, having this type of a problem at this particular moment and this particular spot? We can only describe this as a freak incident, a coincidental and entirely unpredictable course of events combining - incidentally - several disastrous features that are otherwise spread over a vast population of similar things. This entirely exceptional combination of disastrous features, however, has systemic effects: while the incident itself is unpredictable, the effects it provokes are predictable. We know that when something like this happens, mammoth traffic jams will follow, and that this traffic crisis will have direct and indirect effects over a very large area, including large groups of people not immediately involved in the incident - not even close to it, in fact. Infrastructural problems are usually characterized by such asymmetries between causes and effects: the causes are often unpredictable and entirely coincidental, while the effects pervade the entire system. The reality is that one cannot do much to prevent such freak incidents from happening, and that one can only try to cope, for better or for worse, with their effects.

What is the statistical chance that this truck, carrying this nasty chemical substance, having this type of a problem at this particular moment and this particular spot?

Meditation is not necessarily an orderly and coherent process of thought. And so, while I was watching the monster traffic jam on the Antwerp Ring, I started thinking about terrorist attacks. Earlier this semester, I had been doing work with my students on "lone wolf" cases of terrorist crime, so the association wasn't entirely gratuitous. We could see that most of these attacks - like the traffic accident on the Ring - were freak events, extremely exceptional and combining disastrous features only combined in such extremely exceptional instances. Reactions after the attacks also displayed similar features: no one really "saw it coming", and no one usually had noticed "anything special" about the perpetrators. They looked (as did, one supposes, the truck on the Ring just before it lost part of its cargo) entirely "normal" and, consequently, "not suspicious". Such attacks have butterfly effects as well: a tremendous shock shakes the foundations of social life and ripples out to include vast groups of people, almost all of whom have nothing to do with the incidents themselves. These effects, too, are systemic, and the sole difference between the freak accident on the Ring and "lone wolf" terror attacks is that the latter are premeditated and planned. Terrorists exactly aim at causing such systemic disruptions.

There is another difference, though: a difference in response. In the case of freak traffic accidents, we appear to acccept the unpredictable "poor luck" character of what happened, and try to make the best of a bad job coping with it. In the case of terror attacks, by contrast, we appear to believe that not just the effects, but also the causes, are systemic, and can thus be brought under control. There is a genre of contemporary political discourse on security that suggests - or assumes - the preventability of terror attacks, even when such incidents are extremely exceptional and fundamentally unpredictable. I see this as a highly questionable assumption. And so, to those embracing that assumption, I launch an appeal.

If you believe that terror attacks can be prevented, please also try to prevent freak traffic accidents such as the one I described.

If you believe that terror attacks can be prevented, please also try to prevent freak traffic accidents such as the one I described. Because if you claim that you can prevent the former from happening, you should be able to prevent the latter as well. Both types of incidents are morphologically cognate. Or conversely, if you admit that you can't solve the problem freak traffic accidents and propose to us that we should just cope with them, please admit that the problem of terror attacks is fundamentally unsolvable as well. And in any event, please do not offer us the types of solutions offered by the traffic-information apps on our smartphones. When the shit hits the fan, they become part of the problem.