Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Towers of Power


In the week after the September 11 attacks, my Berkeley colleague George Lakoff got rounded up in a dragnet of conservative outrage for a heartfelt reckoning with the meaning of towers and the violent destruction thereof. Whether or not you agree with his points — which were mostly anodyne applications of his general theory that all abstract thought is at base metaphorical, but which seemed to offend people mainly for the brief mention of one very traditional metaphor, the tower as phallus — it was almost a prototype for what people think a public intellectual should be doing: bringing the fruits of his technical research to bear in making sense of confusing events, and public responses.

Anyway, I’ve just been visiting Washington DC for the first time since I was a young child, and I was struck by the differing levels of security at the two monuments to great American presidents that stand on opposite ends of the reflecting pool. The towering Washington monument has airport+ level security: Metal detectors, no large bags, no food or drink. The squat Lincoln memorial has no security at all — not even the health-and-safety guardians whom one would expect at any modest monument — with people walking freely in or out. It doesn’t seem wrong. Somehow it feels intuitively obvious that a tower would attract political violence in a way that a squat temple would not.

It’s similar to the issue of why terrorists always like to hijack airplanes. There are more people on a big train than on any airplane, but still terror attacks on trains are rare, despite the vastly tighter security at airports.

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