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Vehicle Terrorism and Humanity’s Crooked Timber

Here’s a thesis statement for New Urbanists to consider: it’s hard to enjoy being a flaneur if someone is trying to mow you down with a motor vehicle, or if the cops are shooting to stop the mowing. That is, a pedestrian taking in the sights ought not to have to worry about being struck by a car or truck, or perhaps being hit by a stray bullet.

Such thoughts are summoned to mind by this Washington Post headline [1]: “Police in D.C., New York revise shooting policies in response to vehicle ramming attacks.” As the Post‘s May 1 story details, in the wake of the spate of ramming attacks around the world, police forces are reversing their decades-old policies against shooting at dangerous moving vehicles.

Reluctantly, one might conclude that the authorities have no choice. It’s one thing to tell the police that they shouldn’t shoot at, say, getaway cars, because the collateral risks are too high; it’s another to demand they hold their fire at the moment of murderous vehicular mayhem.

One could further say that the April 23 attack [2] in Toronto, which left 10 dead and 15 injured, is particularly scary because the alleged killer was not a jihadi. Instead, he was apparently an “incel,” [3] which is one of those new categories of pathology that the Internet seems good at discovering, and in a perverse way at glamorizing and multiplying.

In other words, ramming has transcended the stereotype about killers as ISIS wannabes. It’s now an equal-opportunity thing, a wicked kind of performance art, a sick-yet-easy option for anyone with a sufficiently malevolent turn of mind.

So what to do? How to respond to this threat? For the moment, let’s confine ourselves to the immediate issue of safeguarding streets and walkways. As for the underlying problem of human nature, let’s wish the healers and therapists the best, even as we remember the realist wisdom of Immanuel Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

Still, as we live our lives in a bent condition, we can at least try to make straight the path to greater urban safety. Here are four possible categories of solutions.


First, applying on-the-spot restraint. This includes, of course, shooting at the driver. Without a doubt, firing at moving targets is at best a least-worst strategy, given the difficulty of aiming and the great risk of hitting innocent bystanders.

So we might ask: are there better mechanisms of immediate restraint? Could we have pop-up barriers or force fields? Traps or nets of some kind? Lasers or some sort of pulse device that turns off the vehicle? In speculating on such technological fixes, we should have confidence that there will be plenty of clever ideas for gadgets—and some might even work. Of course, we should also be mindful that any safety device that kicks into gear will likely be controlled by some sort of artificial intelligence, and, as this author has argued [4], that opens up new vistas of the problematic.

Second, banning cars in pedestrian-dense areas. Many cities [5] have been moving in this direction: in the past, the rationale has been aesthetic or environmental, but nowadays safety is another valid reason. Indeed, even without ramming, motor vehicles bring trouble, killing some 6,000 [6] pedestrians each year. So in some places, banning vehicles would also solve the ramming problem.

On the other hand, in a country of 325 million people, there are a lot of pedestrian-dense areas, and so prohibiting vehicles for the sake of safety is hardly a scalable solution. Moreover, as President Trump [7] pointed out while speaking to the NRA convention in Dallas on Friday, “van control” would raise all the same objections as “gun control.” And, of course, cars have a lot more support than guns.

Third, accelerating the push toward driverless cars, also known as autonomous vehicles (AV). That is, if we can’t ban cars, maybe we can ban car drivers. The AV idea, actively pushed by Silicon Valley, seemingly offers the promise of eliminating wheeled human murderousness, because the computer would be doing the driving—or perhaps, in the name of safety, the emergency overriding.

Yet on the matter of safety, a string of accidents, including fatal accidents [8], has shaken public confidence in AV. Actually, come to think of it, maybe the public has never wanted AV. Maybe all along it’s been a top-down lobbying campaign pushed by Silicon Valley’s money and prestige.

In the wake of an AV fatality in March, Uber announced a pause in AV testing [9], which seemed like a fair acknowledgement of public concern. And then, just last Friday, we learned that another tech company, Waymo, owned by Google, had still been AV-ing—and was involved in another accident [10], this one mercifully non-fatal.

Obviously, the tech lords have gotten way ahead of themselves on AV—and more to the point, way ahead of public opinion. Yes, techsters have much invested in their AV projects, but the American people have much invested in their own lives. And as long as it’s votes—as opposed to campaign donations—that are counted on Election Day, politicians will have to heed the wariness of voters [11] more than the eagerness of donors. So in light of these murky politics, an AV solution to ramming is nothing to count on.

Fourth, building barriers. In the last three and a half decades—ever since the 1983 truck-bombing [12] of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon—a pattern has emerged: if a building is judged to be truly important, it is to be defended by an immobile phalanx of bollards or other kinds of obstacles, including, sigh, the distinctly unsightly jersey barrier [13].

Typically, these protected buildings are public structures, but some high-profile private buildings, too, have the benefit of barriers. For example, the immediate area around Trump Tower in Manhattan is a car-proof fortress, and other name-worthy private buildings—such as the nearby Bank of America Tower—have the same fixed counter-terror protection.

As this author wrote for TAC [14] last year, bollards can be seen as “passive defense.” Passive defense is just what it sounds like: it’s just there, always on guard. The alternative is, of course, “active defense.” And while active defense might seem better because, well, it’s active, it will certainly be more expensive and might sometimes even be less effective.

After all, with active defense, there will always be technical complexity—and thus the greater risk of Murphy’s Law. By contrast, passive defense, in its low-tech simplicity, is always “on,” whether or not it’s plugged in or wired up, and that makes it about as snafu-proof as anything humans can create. (This author has sung the praises of passive defense earlier, here [15] and here [16].)

To be sure, the issue of putting barriers around buildings is controversial. Back in 2006 [17], for example, New York City began restricting the placement of barriers around buildings. After all, some of them were definitely eyesores, and probably all of them had at least some inhibiting effect on traffic and people flow.

Yet the active march toward passive defense is likely to continue—for the simple reason that, in its stark simplicity, it does the job. Moreover, with some thought, barriers could be made prettier; they could be disguised as benches, or tables, or statuary. They could even be trees—perhaps, if need be, reinforced trees.

In the meantime, another new phenomenon in the built environment, protected bicycle lanes, points the way to another kind of passive solution. That is, bike lanes with curbs that separate bicyclists from motorists are an obviously good idea for the protection of the two-wheeled. And it’s easy to see how curbed bike lanes could double as passive defense for pedestrians and buildings from the four-wheeled threat.

Of course, a lively debate about such matters is not just inevitable; it’s useful. The dialectic is the fastest route to sustainable solutions. In that vein, it would be interesting to hear more from major landlords, including federal ones like the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the General Services Administration. And it would be equally constructive to hear from artists, urbanists, activists, and the citizenry. For the sake of aesthetics as well as safety, a national conversation is needed.

Not everyone, to be sure, will like the idea of passive barriers, because there’s always someone who objects. As Voltaire said, it’s easier to conquer the universe than to get a single village to agree—and America is a mighty big village.

Still, until we get to the world where humans are made from non-crooked timber, it’s likely that a critical mass of people will agree on the need for barriers as a relatively cheap—and extremely important—urban safety measure.

James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at TAC. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Vehicle Terrorism and Humanity’s Crooked Timber"

#1 Comment By DrivingBy On May 8, 2018 @ 11:19 pm

Japan has had zero of these type of attacks. They have had zero Pulse Nightclub type attacks, and zero San Beradino type attacks.
Of course, we may never know why any of the former attacks occur, and we may never know why there are no such attacks in Japan.
A great mystery it is, we must remain perplexed.

#2 Comment By Fazal Majid On May 8, 2018 @ 11:54 pm

Bollards would also protect against bad or geriatric drivers like the one who mowed down 9 at a Santa Monica market and injured a further 54 in 2003

#3 Comment By polistra On May 9, 2018 @ 3:51 am

Most “terrorists” are created by Agent Provocateurs. True of ISIS for sure, and the Incel thing looks suspiciously AP-ish.

When you’re permanently low-status and unlovable, the traditional solution is to build a life with enough intrinsic pleasure that you don’t need the approval of others. Thousands of years of wisdom recommends this path. Earlier eras provided monasteries and convents to sacralize the path.

The Incel thing goes the other way, recommending a specifically unattainable goal.

Any time you see people ORGANIZING toward a goal that CAN’T be achieved, you can be sure there’s manipulation involved, with the purpose of creating riots and chaos. Seeking the unattainable is the guaranteed recipe for riots.

The solution starts with exposing and recognizing the ORGANIZERS. Turn Alinsky back against Alinsky. Freeze, polarize, personalize.

#4 Comment By Dan Green On May 9, 2018 @ 9:35 am

Western Democracies have become so liberal, I fear they are just breeding grounds for nut cases. One has to wonder what these kids locked in their bedrooms all day on the internet end up finding interesting.

#5 Comment By Dan Green On May 9, 2018 @ 9:36 am

The kid in Austin is a prime example. He blew himself up before it could be learned what motivated his bombing’s.

#6 Comment By Lert345 On May 9, 2018 @ 10:03 am

You can’t ban everything that might possibly be used to cause harm. Someone with the intention to kill lots of people will always find a way. We need to address the social dysfunctions that lead to murderous acts, not ban vehicles from pedestrian areas.


Violent crime is rare in Japan generally. Chalk up to some cultural influence, perhaps the idea that the perp’s entire family is shamed as well.

#7 Comment By Slugger On May 9, 2018 @ 11:08 am

There lots of dangers out there, and our public safety posture ought to be a dispassionate assessment of risk before taking actions since such actions affect the liberties of mostly well behaved citizens. I don’t want a TSA inspection set up on every sidewalk. We are all prone to overreacting to very low risk events.

#8 Comment By Ken T On May 9, 2018 @ 1:13 pm

Any time you see people ORGANIZING toward a goal that CAN’T be achieved, you can be sure there’s manipulation involved,

I think you underestimate the ability of groupthink to cause people to convince themselves that their “unachievable goal” is in fact achievable. No outside manipulation required. All it takes is one self-confident optimist within the group to get the ball rolling.

#9 Comment By DanJ On May 9, 2018 @ 5:28 pm

The 2016 truck attack on a Christmas market in Berlin was less lethal because of safety electronics.

The Scania semi-trailer truck had an emergency braking system designed to prevent collision if the driver falls asleep. If the sensors pick up obstacles ahead there is an audiovisual warning to the driver and brakes applied. If the driver then applies steering or throttle input the system “assumes” he is trying to avoid impact that way, and stops braking. After first impact brakes are again on, and can no longer be overridden by the driver.

The truck had stopped completely 250 feet into the market area. 12 people died. Still, without safety electronics the casualties had been many times worse.

#10 Comment By Blitzed On May 9, 2018 @ 6:11 pm

Maginot lines deflect attacks — to other targets.

#11 Comment By Kurt Gayle On May 9, 2018 @ 8:12 pm

James Pinkerton mentions the use of bollards. Deutsche Welle, or DW, Germany’s public international broadcaster ran an article (April 8th) about the use of bollards to protect against vehicle attacks.

“The highest security-grade cylindrical metal bollards in the US are capable of stopping seven-ton trucks travelling at around 80 kilometers an hour, but there is disagreement about whether they are worth their often enormous cost. When asked about their effectiveness, Jon Coaffee, a professor of urban geography at the University of Warwick, told the New York magazine The Village Voice, that anti-attack bollards were ‘incredibly effective at stopping vehicles from entering urban spaces.’ For that reason, Coafee added, they had become a ‘default option.’ The New York City bollards cost an estimate $30,000 (€24,400) per unit. A project manager for a leading US bollard manufacturer told a newspaper in Milwaukee, where some 400 of the barriers are being installed to protect the city’s new basketball arena…”


Automatic retractable bollards tested using truck travelling at 80 kilometers per hour (50 mph):

#12 Comment By Dale McNamee On May 10, 2018 @ 2:53 pm

Shaming the entire family would be the way to deal with the lunacy… The concept of ” saving face” is very prominent, along with other cultural traditions… The “Tao” as described by C.S.Lewis in his book : “The Abolition of Man”…

Instead, we here in America make celebrities of terrorists and give way to much promotion of what motivates them and that feeds the dark, evil, psychopathology that resides in those who wallow in their self-absorbed pity…