‘Something here stinks’

A report from smelly Manhattan on the various conspiracy theories about that New York 'gas cloud'.

Alan Miller

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The pungent smell became apparent on a cloudy Monday morning in Manhattan as I was travelling back to the city. What was it? Various explanations were ventured, including that it might be a small gas leak in the West Village or a potentially bigger leak in New Jersey; some media outlets wondered out loud whether it might be a gas attack by terrorists. All of these possibilities were soon ruled out, as the authorities established quite quickly that the smelly gas was not a danger to the public. After temporary closures of some subway stations, hospitals and schools, Mayor Bloomberg announced at a press conference that there was no threat and people could continue with their daily lives as normal.

There seemed to be a fairly subdued reaction to the whole thing. Indeed, the authorities seemed keen to keep the situation calm; while some people did show concern initially, things soon got back to normal. It would appear that most New Yorkers took this incident in their stride.

During a trip to the gym the following day, I asked the receptionists what they thought of the ‘gas cloud’ incident. Their thoughts were in keeping with the relatively low-key reaction. ‘I was a bit freaked out at first’, said one. ‘I thought it could be a terrorist thing, but…well, I think it’s okay now.’

However, amongst some people there is an underlying belief that there’s been a cover-up by sinister authorities, or that there was a terrorist experiment to evaluate the efficacy of pulling off a real attack. A cop at my local subway stop told me: ‘Nobody knows nothing. This is a top-secret something….they’re not saying what they should be saying.’

Writing in the New York Post, John Podhoretz pointed out that the trendy parenting website, urbanbaby.com, was full of misgivings about what had happened: ‘”Why isn’t everyone panicking about the gas smell?” wrote one poster. “I am usually pretty level-headed, even worked until 5pm on 9/11, but I am totally freaked out by this.” “I was single on 9/11”, wrote another. “Now with children, just the unknown of this gas smell is driving me into a near panic. Can’t imagine what it would have been like to have children during scarier times.”‘

It is fair enough for people to be concerned about the smell of gas; we tend to check our ovens when such smells arise, and try to find out what the problem is. Yet there was something strange and striking about these claims that the authorities were covering up the true origins of the smell. Podhoretz continued in his article: ‘The fact that Mayor Bloomberg went before the public and offered no solution to the mystery only enhanced the eerie quality of the entire incident. How could what happened be so quickly dismissed as benign if its source and origin remained inexplicable?’

So even when the authorities gave us the all-clear, there was a lingering suspicion and concern. Yet in many ways they only have themselves to blame for this; it is a noxious product of today’s culture of fear. When the authorities continually reinforce the idea that we are at risk from a variety of things, from terrorist attacks to avian flu, it is not surprising that many are sceptical when they then tell us not to worry. Podhoretz finished his article by replying to a question posted on urbanbaby.com: ‘”Can’t you just see a terrorist about to strike a giant match?” Yes. We can.’ (1) That just about sums up officaldom’s warnings over the past five years: that terrorists could strike a match against us at any time.

It wasn’t just the tabloids stoking up concern. The Chicago Tribune featured Rae Zimmerman of NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, who is studying mass reactions to catastrophic events, arguing that ‘smell certainly can be a terrorist mechanism, whether it harms people or not. Smells that people don’t understand certainly can cause anxiety.’ (2) The Empire Zone, the blog area at the New York Times, features even wilder speculation. Some commenters said the smell was due to the Exxon (now Valero) refinery in Elizabeth; others said it might be the whiff of too many chicken wings on sale in the city.

One poster suggested it might have something to do with military testing: ‘I recall the 1950 Army experiment where a bacteria was released in San Francisco as a way to study how the city might be attacked, and what kind of defences would be available. The Army’s testing on unwitting citizens was kept secret for 26 years, but was finally made public during the mid-Seventies…. Something here stinks to high heaven, and it isn’t only New York City.’ (3)

Officialdom’s fanning of fear around the issue of terrorism and other areas of life tends to ratchet up both suspicion and cynicism: suspicion of any kind of smell or incident or unattended package, and also cynicism of the authorities who continually warn of possible terror attacks that very rarely occur (4). Meanwhile, it is business as usual at the Department of Homeland Security’s National Terror Alert website, which informs us in a flashing message: ‘When the next terror attack occurs… it may already be too late’. (5)

As it happens, there are lots of strange smells on the East Coast. A friend of a friend moved to Hoboken in New Jersey in the Eighties; she called the superintendent the first morning she was there because there was a gassy smell. He told her to open some windows, but that only seemed to make it worse. When the superintendent arrived at her house, he took a whiff and laughed. ‘Sweetheart, that’s just the smell of Hoboken….’

Alan Miller is director of the NY Salon. The NY Salon is hosting a series of events on risk with The Wolfson Center, The New School. The next event is The Human Footprint – Has civilisation gone too far? on Tuesday 13 February 2007.

(1) Smell of Terror, New York Post, 9 Jan 2007

(2) Officials trace mystery smells to NJ, Chicago Tribune, 9 Jan 2007

(3) The NY Times (Empire Zone), What the weathermen knew

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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