Where terror struck, New Yorkers model resilience amid diversity

Six of the eight people killed in a terrorist’s rampage Tuesday were foreign visitors to New York City. That’s a symbol of the city’s strengths as a magnet for varied cultures. 

Richard Drew/AP
Pedestrians walk near 42nd and Madison in New York on a late afternoon in October. Manhattan draws Midwestern tourists as well as travelers from abroad, along with transplants from the world over seeking new lives here.

The stretch of pedestrian paths, bikeways, and newly landscaped parks that extend along the Hudson River on Manhattan’s west side is a place where local residents, students, and visitors from around the world have mixed together to experience the sights and sounds of New York City.

That experience famously includes New York’s mosaic of cultures – the languages, clothing styles, and cuisines that define its famously cosmopolitan cityscapes. High-paid bankers, women wearing hijab, and fashion-conscious students often mingle here to a degree rivaled in few cities throughout the world.

So when a man sped through a riverside bike path with a rented pickup truck on Tuesday afternoon, killing eight and injuring 11 in the deadliest terror attack in New York since 9/11, authorities say, it was in many ways an assault on the particular energies that have long drawn people here, both to visit and to live.

“I’m a New Yorker and a cyclist, so I know that route – all the twists and turns from Houston to Chambers – quite well,” says Charles “Chuck” Strozier, director of the John Jay College Center on Terrorism. “I’ve been flooded with messages because friends know I bike there.”

Diversity that empowers peace

And as a scholar currently working with colleagues in Oxford University in England, studying how diversity affects various kinds of discord in cities around the world, he notes how New York stands out:

“The most important example of those kinds of cases is the absolutely most diverse place on the face of the earth – and that is Queens, New York,” says Mr. Strozier, author of “Until the Fires Stopped Burning” about the experiences of 9/11 survivors. “It has 134 nationalities and ethnicities. People live cheek-to-jowl. Hindus have Muslim friends, they date each other, they go to the same colleges, they take the same trains. Queens is also the most peaceful place on the face of the earth. And that’s the most positive thing one can say about New York City and the most hopeful as we move forward.”

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Natalie Kortman lays flowers for victims of Tuesday's attack outside a police barricade on the bike path next to West Street on Nov. 1, a day after a man driving a rented pickup truck mowed down pedestrians and cyclists on a bike path alongside the Hudson River in New York City.

Six of the eight people killed on Tuesday were visitors to the city. One was a woman from Belgium, who was visiting her mother and sister, officials said. The others included five Argentine businessmen who had come with a group of eight to celebrate their 30th high school reunion. Before they left, they posed for a group photo, each wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word, “Libre” – the Spanish word for “free,” the AP reported.

And despite its reputation for its “mean streets,” over the past decade New York has in many ways worked to become a more gentle place. It has become one of the safest big cities in the world, hitting record low crime rates each of the past few years.

The rampage, perpetrated by Sayfullo Saipov, an immigrant from Uzbekistan, officials say, occurred on a stretch where new parks had been built on the city’s former mighty Hudson piers. Along with the bike paths and pedestrian walkways, a new skateboard park was recently built. There’s also place to kayak for free.

The city, too, has begun to promote the use of bicycles as part of its campaign against congestion and traffic fatalities. The city has more than doubled its bike paths over the past decade, from 513 miles in 2006 to 1,133 miles in 2017.

Kevin Bolger, a bike messenger in New York since 1992, has has ridden the route “a million times, at least once a week,” he says.

“I think this attack can be life-changing for anyone, and it may make some people decide they don’t want to live here anymore,” says Mr. Bolger, father of a six- and 10-year-old in Brooklyn, and the owner of Cyclehawk, a small bike messenger company. “But for me, personally, I love my job, I love where my kids are growing up here, I don’t want to be anywhere else. There are so many good people here that we’re going to survive whatever comes along, as long as it doesn’t wipe us off the map. I don’t know what it is about this town, but I love it.”

For this reporter, too, who lived just blocks from the Tribeca intersection where the perpetrator crashed his rented pickup truck after plowing nearly a mile through the area’s crowded bike path, it was a place for daily jogs and relaxing Sundays on one of the lawns that sit atop one of Manhattan’s former massive piers.

Many New Yorkers have expressed what could be called a particular kind of resiliency. The writer E.B. White once described New York as “particularly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along ... without inflicting the event on its inhabitants; so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul.”

Immigration’s role debated

On Wednesday President Trump, a native New Yorker, called for an end to the Diversity Visa Lottery Program, which randomly selects certain individuals from countries that otherwise do not send many immigrants to the US, and singled out Senate minority leader Charles Schumer (D) of New York for implicit blame.

In fact, Senator Schumer had been part of a major, but unsuccessful bipartisan proposal to overhaul US immigration law as part of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” in 2013.  

The alleged attacker, Mr. Saipov, was able to get a green card after being selected in the lottery, the Department of Homeland Security confirmed Wednesday.

Some security experts, including Strozier, worry that efforts such as ending the diversity visa program can be counterproductive, because “you antagonize even further your minority community, where people are more likely to get radicalized.”

“I believe the message is misguided: It misplaces the source of radicalization onto the ‘foreign land’ and ‘foreign nationals,’ ” says Mariya Omelicheva, professor of political science at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. “Saipov, as others, has been radicalized domestically, in the United States.”

Adding that most terrorist attacks in the West are committed by second- and third-generation Muslims and Muslim converts, she says, “What might have contributed to their radicalization is the perception that their way of life and belief system has been challenged by growing anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment, exploited by the recruiters and propagandists of the violent Salafi groups.”

Sean Telo, a sales representative for Island Creek Oysters, feels fortunate he wasn’t there Tuesday, since he frequently works near where the attack occurred.

The parade went on

After checking in with friends to see if they were OK, he says he realizes that living in New York, as in other cities, entails the risk of such attacks happening. “The one thing I’d say is that we’re not scared, and nothing is really going to change,” he says. “As soon as we figured out what had happened, we went out.... It wasn’t really something that was going to change what we’re going to do.”

A Halloween parade went on as scheduled Tuesday night, and the New York Marathon is scheduled to proceed as planned on Sunday, though some surrounding events may be canceled.

“New York is a pretty amazing place, and not only because of where we are and what is around us, but because of the people here,” Mr. Telo continues. “This is a very resilient city, and I don’t see anything changing anytime soon.

“I’m walking through a packed Midtown as we speak, and it takes a lot to disrupt New York,” says Zachary Goldman, a native New Yorker and executive director of the Center on Law & Security at New York University in Manhattan. “In one sense, this is new, because it has not happened in New York or anywhere in the US yet.”

“But France, England, and Germany have had attacks like this using a ubiquitous weapon – a truck – with a person who doesn’t need any external planning, coordination, or encouragement, who can literally wake up in the morning, rent a truck and kill eight people without raising any red flags,” Mr. Goldman continues. “That is really, really, really hard to protect against.”

Bolger, the bike messenger, remembers last May when a driver barreled through Times Square, killing one and injuring 22 others. “There’s not much you can do. People got to live. The next day they put up a bunch of giant cement blocks, which would prevent a guy from doing that exactly where that guy did it. But five blocks away there are no cement blocks.”

Wrestling with fears

Yet Strozier, who interviewed scores of 9/11 survivors for his book, notes that some New Yorkers were indeed “overwhelmed by apocalyptic dread” after this week’s attack.

“These things become reinforcing,” he says. “That’s the thing about trauma – you get locked in time. So it’s not only that the impact lingers, but to an extent that an event like 9/11 is genuinely traumatic [at a group level], not only does the fear not go away, but when you have another event it feels more intense and more scary because it evokes the earlier sense of trauma.”

These kinds of attacks, he continues, are especially poignant to cosmopolitan New Yorkers.

“That’s the ambiguity,” says Strozier, who was heartbroken by the images of fallen fellow bikers and runners on Tuesday. “You cannot protect everybody. We have to live with the danger, yet not live in a state of fear and despair.”

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