GEOG 597i
Critical Geospatial Thinking and Applications

The Importance of Place

Places, like people, are unique in character and personality, and like people, they change over time. Unfortunately, many Americans understand very little about places in the world other than those immediately connected to their lives. Generally, until the United States is engaged in some major involvement with a specific place such as Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq, few American citizens know very much about these places on the globe. Of course, this lack of knowledge about the world is dangerous. American politicians are elected, at least in part, on the basis of their foreign policy beliefs. For example, many people supported the invasion of Iraq by the United States in part because they were convinced that Saddam Hussein, the President of Iraq, had been behind the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Additionally, at the time, many people did not seem to know the difference between Iraq and Iran (a point that was made in a country-western song, extolling the simple values of average Americans). The fact that there was almost no evidence to suggest that Iraq was directly (or probably even indirectly) involved in these attacks did not seem to matter, because many tend to view the entire Middle East as one geopolitical entity dominated by radical jihadists who are intent on destroying the United States. They know little else about the cultures of the Middle Eastern countries, or their differences. They are also relatively unaware of the role of the “Western Powers” in the region over the last one hundred and fifty years. Thus, it is often difficult for American voters to make informed decisions about candidates and party positions until after it has become abundantly apparent that the foreign policies they supported in the past have failed. Once the disaster has occurred, the voters may then respond by throwing out the incumbents and putting in a new team with a different message. Even after the disaster of the Iraq War and the current resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is difficult for American leaders to articulate a cogent and coherent policy because too many Americans simply do not understand the nature of the current world geopolitical situation.

Understanding the nature of places in the world is important because places are the settings within which people’s daily lives occur, in which their sense of social well-being is either nurtured or threatened, and in which people are socialized or in some cases, even radicalized. Since the beginning of the “global war on terrorism” the question has often been asked, “….what would motivate a young man, especially one who has lived among us for many years, to board an airliner, take it over at knife point, and crash it into the World Trade Center, thereby killing thousands of innocent people?” This is an altogether appropriate question for which the answer may (at least in part) be found by understanding the nature of the places from which such terrorists come. Immediately after the 2001 attacks, it was common to hear people suggest that the men responsible came from backgrounds of great poverty. Further investigation of the facts, however, suggests that at least some of them came from better-off families. Increasingly, it became apparent that they were greatly influenced by their educational experiences. Recently, the experiences of the United Kingdom (terrorist attacks by Muslims who live inside the country) suggests that the radicalization of an individual can occur at home. It appears that some terrorists inside the United Kingdom have been educated and radicalized in local schools in order to prepare them to attempt to terrorize the British people.