Welcome to a town called terror

Most people have already fled Playas, New Mexico. Now the final residents are preparing for anthrax attacks and suicide bombers. Jason Oddy visits the town where America is mobilising for the ultimate showdown
Click to follow
The Independent US

The Chiricahua high desert is a remote, unchanging place. Tucked into the southwestern corner of New Mexico at an altitude of 4,500ft, it is a land of scrubby bushes, cacti, lizards and rattlesnakes. As you head south along Highway 146, only the Animas Mountains to the west and the Hatchet range in the rear-view mirror cut across the horizon of this unrelieved expanse of hard, ash-brown earth. Occasionally a dwelling or an incongruous vineyard or a fenced-in herd of longhorn cattle flashes by. But together with the thin ribbon of the road, these are the only vestiges of man in this vast, parched wilderness.

The Chiricahua high desert is a remote, unchanging place. Tucked into the southwestern corner of New Mexico at an altitude of 4,500ft, it is a land of scrubby bushes, cacti, lizards and rattlesnakes. As you head south along Highway 146, only the Animas Mountains to the west and the Hatchet range in the rear-view mirror cut across the horizon of this unrelieved expanse of hard, ash-brown earth. Occasionally a dwelling or an incongruous vineyard or a fenced-in herd of longhorn cattle flashes by. But together with the thin ribbon of the road, these are the only vestiges of man in this vast, parched wilderness.

An hour out from the nearest town, a left turn at a lonely crossroads steers you still deeper into the desert. Which makes it all the more surprising when a few miles further along, a sizeable cluster of trees appears. In the sun, their unduly green leaves shimmer like a mirage; close up it transpires that far from being an illusion they are very much part of Playas, a suburban idyll of well-watered municipal lawns and exiled temperate flora landed squarely in this improbable, far-flung spot.

Built from scratch in the early 1970s by the mining giant Phelps Dodge, Playas was conceived as a Levittown of its time. Workers from the nearby smelter, a behemoth producing 800,000 tonnes of copper a year, lived here. And aside from the 259 houses, 25 apartments, supermarket, medical centre, post office and fire station, the company also provided tennis courts, a six-lane bowling alley, swimming pool, rodeo ring and no fewer than three baseball diamonds in its paternalistic stab at founding a blue-collar Utopia. Things went well for a quarter of a century. But when in 1999 a downturn in the price of copper led to the closure of the smelter, overnight this bustling, thousand-strong community found itself transformed into a ghost town.

If to date Playas' brief history has mirrored the rise and fall of US industrial might, then from December this fallow outpost is set to become the nation's crystal ball. For after five years during which its remaining 50-odd inhabitants have witnessed nothing more dramatic than broom weed and turpentine slowly reclaiming the asphalt, the town is being converted into a laboratory for America's War on Terror.

Two months ago, New Mexico Tech, an engineering college with a long history of military research, bought the entire place from Phelps Dodge for $5m (£2.6m). The deal was the culmination of an 18-month campaign to establish a "real-world training centre" that would complement the college's existing anti-terrorist training programme. Created in the wake of the Oklahoma bombing a decade ago, and tripled in size after September 11, the programme will soon find its apotheosis in the desert with a series of simulated anthrax attacks, suicide bombs and water-supply poisonings, the whole show funded by the Department of Homeland Security to the tune of $30m (£15.7m) a year.

The idea of such goings on - even though pretend - would be enough to rouse the most dormant nimbyism. But to a defunct town in a depressed region, the college's promise to spend between $3m and $5m here over the next 12 months alone is impossible to decline. Tommy Townsend, manager of a skeleton crew at the mothballed smelter and a resident of Playas and its environs for the past 28 years, sees New Mexico Tech's involvement as an entirely positive move. "I don't have a problem with them using it to help the War on Terror," he says. "I don't think they're going to do anything that is hazardous to our health."

With government contracts already in place to train border guards, policemen, firemen, emergency medical workers, not to mention FBI and Department of Justice agents from all over the country, the new owners project that their scheme will generate around 200 local jobs. For the time being the last residents are being encouraged to stay on, and will be given the option to act as paid extras in some of the various disasters that are being planned for their town.

All this might seem like an odd sort of renaissance. Yet given that from Hollywood and Disneyland to Fox News and WMD sightings, America's taste for bewitching itself with make-believe is long established, this latest addition to the simulation industry might be the shape of things to come. Reality has been consigned to something you see on television, while real life is a zone reserved for acting out your fantasies. Properly managed, such games of smoke and mirrors are potentially extremely lucrative.

Ever since the War on Terror was invoked by President Bush, this notion has been milked to maximum effect by the US administration. Spun into a many-headed hydra, it helped make the case for the invasion of Iraq while simultaneously permitting an erosion of civil liberties back home. As a doom-laden, bellicose mantra it has worked its magic, and nowhere more so than with the mainstream media who have instinctively understood the power of endlessly and unquestioningly repeating such an irresistible incantation.

Even though the War on Terror may now have become the background hum of everyday life in America, none of the parties with vested interests has let up in its efforts to keep the nation on its toes. For just as the Bush administration has maintained an elevated or high terror alert unceasingly since they devised their colour-coded warning scheme more than two years ago, so the plethora of press releases and news stories surrounding New Mexico Tech's takeover of Playas all come down to one crucial word.

Anyone wanting a slice of the Department of Homeland Security's multi-billion-dollar budget knows that they must summon up that evil genie "terror". And just like the businessman who has to keep faith in consumer confidence or in rising stock prices, they must believe in their bogeyman too.

Van Romero, New Mexico Tech's vice president of research and development, and a driving force behind the reinvention of Playas, understands that in the same way that Bush needs people like him who are prepared to join the administration in talking up the threat to the nation, so he needs Bush too, if only to keep the college's balance sheet in good health. "I certainly see his re-election as a very positive event," he declared a fortnight after the incumbent was returned to the White House. "The current administration has done an excellent job to increase funding."

Romero, who at present is in talks with the US military about using his suburban oasis to train soldiers in door-to-door combat, has also been sending out feelers to Hollywood. In truth, with America's commingling of fact and fiction gone so far, Playas the film set would be little different from Playas the training ground. For unlike the real disaster of the mass layoff that struck the town, the spectacular disasters now being planned will all be fake. And while the explosions and assaults that Tommy Townsend and his fellow residents must look forward to will ostensibly be meant to make the homeland safer, their real purpose will be to keep an already hypnotised public teetering on the edge of their seats.

Comments