Terror attack rattles New York streets but not its core

Many New York residents say the pressure-cooker bombings have not shaken the improved sense of security in the city. 

Justin Lane/EPA via AP
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, left, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo talk with area residents on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016, while touring the site of an explosion that occurred on Saturday night in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. Numerous people were injured in blast, The motive is still being investigated.

After one of two pressure-cooker bombs detonated on a Lower Manhattan street Saturday – a mid-evening blast that injured 29 people and shook a historic neighborhood – Ryan McMillen felt a “thunderclap” smack the center of his chest.

He had just passed a construction dumpster on 23rd Street with his wife and two young daughters when the handmade bomb ripped the dumpster apart and sent shrapnel flying a few hundred feet behind them.

His immediate thought: “Oh, that’s all you got?”

Mr. McMillen, a Brooklyn resident who sells rare books part-time, doesn't want “to downplay the seriousness of it,” he says. He was pushing his 3-year-old in a stroller when it happened, and his wife is still shaken. But “I wasn’t that freaked out about it.”

It was a glimpse of the mood of New York – as much as there is such a thing in a city of more than 8 million people living shoulder-to-shoulder in a metropolis as diverse and varied as any in world. Certainly, that mood is far from uniform. Yet beyond the clichés of resilience and toughness and even hardened cynicism, many New Yorkers reacted to this weekend’s blast with something far less than a nightmarish sense of dread.

For McMillen, the dumpster bomb just seemed like not that big a deal. “I guess I’m psychologically prepared for something much worse,” he says.

Yet McMillen's reaction also points to a deeper change. On so many levels, he and others say, New York has simply become a safer city in recent years. And even a terrorist attack wasn't enough to dislodge the feeling that this is no longer a place where residents need to live in fear. 

Further evidence of that came Monday. Across the Hudson River, just before noon, local police in Linden, N.J., caught the prime suspect of the Manhattan bombings, Ahmad Khan Rahami, after shooting him multiple times in a gunfight that left at least two officers injured. The capture less than 48 hours after the first bombing was the result of state-of-the-art technology and old-fashioned police work.

It is one reason New Yorkers may feel more secure. The city, which has spent billions on beefing up the capabilities of the New York Police Department and the Fire Department of New York, is far more prepared to counter a terrorist attack than it was on 9/11.

The "NYPD (and FDNY) really are the gold standard with respect to counterterrorism and emergency preparedness," Frank Cilluffo, a former special assistant for homeland security and now director of the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University, in an email. "It has set the bar high, invests heavily in security and worked hard to meet that bar – including in this case, where NYPD moved quickly and collaborated closely with both federal and state authorities." 

Cameras effective

Officials say Mr. Rahami, a naturalized citizen from Afghanistan, was caught by surveillance cameras planting both bombs in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, and that his fingerprints have been found on one of the pressure-cooker bombs. Police also say, according to reports, that Rahami is connected to the bombing that took place in Seaside Park, N.J., earlier on Saturday.

The cameras, some 3,000 of them on streets throughout the city, are connected to a computer with artificial intelligence that can help police quickly find what they're looking for. Once Rahami was identified, officials credit the city's Wireless Emergency Alert system for quickly getting out his photo and description Monday morning to New York residents' cellphones as well as to area police.

Once police made the link between the bombings and foreign terrorism, President Obama spoke Monday afternoon about American resilience.  

“Neither individuals nor organizations like ISIL [Islamic State] can ultimately undermine our way of life,” Mr. Obama said in a statement in New York. “That’s the kind of strength that makes me so proud to be an American.... By showing those who want to do us harm that they will never beat us, by showing the entire world that as Americans we do not, and never will, give in to fear, that’s going to be the most important ingredient in us defeating those who would carry out terrorist acts against us."

That spirit seems especially alive in New York.

“My heart goes out to the victims, and I hope they catch the perpetrator, but I don't take this to heart at all,” says Bill Herman, a resident of Astoria, Queens, who is one of the 5.7 million New Yorkers who take the subway to work nearly every day. “My response to terrorism is to refuse to be terrified, at least as much as I can.”

There are, of course, plenty of things to be worried about in New York. Its subway system is difficult to fully protect, terrorism experts have long pointed out, as are its bridges. As the nation’s biggest city, as well as its financial and media capital, the city has long attracted the attention of terrorists.

“We always have to be on alert in New York City,” FBI Special Agent William Sweeney told reporters at a press conference on Monday. “We're the No. 1 target in the world.”

Nevertheless, the city remains one of the safest cities in the world, Mayor Bill de Blasio and members of the police department have been quick to point out this year. That mixture of confidence and alertness has seeped into the city's psyche.

Thieves call police

Even thieves made a contribution to the police work. On Saturday night, two men on 27th Street picked up an abandoned bag, took out the pressure cooker-bomb, and made off with the bag. Some investigators told reporters the pair may have unwittingly disconnected the explosive when they moved it, allowing police to gather evidence from it.

The following night, two thieves in Elizabeth, N.J., reportedly found a backpack on top of a trash can. When the found five explosives inside, they dropped the bag and called police.

“Maybe I’m too comfortable with the statistics, and maybe most people are affected by the media value of something like this, but I just know as a matter of fact that you’re more likely to get hit by a car, or have a construction accident injury on the sidewalk,” says Mr. Herman, a professor of communications and media management at Fordham University in the Bronx. “Terrorism is just such a small percentage of what threats we face on a regular basis that it really doesn’t enter my mind.”

It took Eli Reiter a few minutes of mental math after his subway ride on Saturday, but Mr. Reiter, a science teacher for a private grade school in Brooklyn, was just under 23rd Street when the bomb exploded less than a half block from the F-train station.

It sobered him, and he told friends that he should probably feel lucky – it felt like a near miss from terror. But it is as if there is an internal block in his subconscious, he says, and he doesn’t feel a deep sense of worry.

“New Yorkers can be fearful, like a few months ago with all the slashings on the subways,” Mr. Reiter says. “And we can be afraid, even when we shouldn’t be afraid, of crime happening when all of the stats keep dropping. But I’ve never felt scared of terrorism living in New York City my whole life. There are these abstract warnings that terrorists will attack major metropolises like Paris and New York and major cities.”

“But If we were fully aware of the near misses in life, we wouldn’t be able to live,” he says.

Countering terrorism, at its heart, involves risk management, says Mr. Cilluffo, the security expert. "The goal is to displace and minimize risk, while recognizing that in an open society, some measure of risk and vulnerability will always exist."

McMillen and his wife were entertaining two cousins from out of town all day Saturday, before their unlikely brush with catastrophe. They had gone to Radio City Music Hall earlier, and then, ironically enough, to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum downtown. When one of his cousins felt the need to put his wallet in his front pocket, McMillen told him not to worry.

Things like that don’t happen here anymore, McMillen told him.

In the 1980s, “I got mugged all the time, I was constantly paranoid,” he says. “But now I’m not paranoid at all.” At the 9/11 memorial, however, he does recall thinking that this would be a place a terrorist might likely strike.

They walked down 23rd Street around 8:30 – a nondescript part of the city, as many have pointed out – and then they felt the blast.  

“Compared to how I felt about the city before, my guard is so much more down than it used to be,” he says. “It’s almost like – a pressure cooker. Hey, I escaped that, that’s cool,” he says. “That’s just a drill for something worse. I live here, and I take those things in stride.”

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