Opinion

A terrorist attack bends but doesn’t break real America

A New York City police officer stands guard next to bicycles lying on a bike path at the crime scene after a motorist Tuesday drove onto the path near the World Trade Center memorial, killing eight people and injuring several. It has been declared an act of terrorism.
A New York City police officer stands guard next to bicycles lying on a bike path at the crime scene after a motorist Tuesday drove onto the path near the World Trade Center memorial, killing eight people and injuring several. It has been declared an act of terrorism. AP

We heard what sounded like a crash and what might have been a gunshot, but it didn’t register at first. Lower Manhattan is loud at every hour with traffic and construction, and my wife and I have grown used to ignoring the ambient noise.

Even when one police siren follows another. Even when it is followed by dozens more.

Two of our three children had been out shopping for Halloween. Then our 12-year-old son came home. He told us he had seen a truck smashed on our corner; that there had been a shooting; that he’d seen what looked like blood on the windshield.

He said police were swarming the neighborhood and helicopters were flying overhead and our building was locked down. He was composed as he told us all of this. He must have missed the attack by a few minutes at most.

Where was our teenager? We experienced a moment of parental panic until she answered her phone and came home. I checked the news and saw something about bodies strewn along the bike path along the Hudson.

I must have said “terrorism.” Our 8-year-old started to cry. “We’re safe up here,” my wife assured her. “No, we’re not,” she replied, not unreasonably.

It was clear that terrorism had returned to Manhattan, barely a year after a bomb went off on 23rd Street and injured more than 30. Within an hour it became clear that it was the act of another jihadi, most likely a self-starter inspired by what he had seen on TV of similar attacks in Barcelona and Nice.

Sen. Ted Cruz and other right-wing populists sometimes deride Manhattan as a liberal La-La Land of privileged people living far from the real world. But Tuesday there was only the stark reality of multiple homicides outside our home and grim-faced emergency medical workers racing to the scene.

Disasters that strike close to home inevitably affect us differently from those we observe at a distance. I cross the bike path near the spot where the terrorist crashed his truck every day. My kids learned to ride their bikes on the same path that became Tuesday’s scene of carnage. We celebrated our older daughter’s bat mitzvah at a restaurant just off that path.

Disasters at close range also have a way of making ideological pronouncements seem remote, feckless and wretched.

President Trump promised in a tweet to “step up our already Extreme Vetting Program.” Then he blasted Chuck Schumer, New York’s Democratic senior senator, for the diversity visa lottery under which the suspect, Sayfullo Saipov, supposedly arrived in the U.S. from Uzbekistan.

Yet the notable fact is that even if the administration’s signature multination travel ban had been in place for decades, it would not have kept Saipov from entering the country legally and obtaining a green card before going on his killing spree.

And getting a visa through a “diversity program” does not mean that he wasn’t vetted before his arrival or that he couldn’t have been denied entry on security grounds.

Determined fanatics will usually outwit the Department of Homeland Security’s games of whack-a-mole. A heavy-handed immigration policy will never be an effective counterterrorism strategy.

In the meantime, the responses that are meaningful, and for which one feels actual gratitude, are all local:

Ryan Nash, the officer who shot the suspect as he waved what seemed to be two guns (toys, as it turned out) in the middle of West Street; the parents and teachers at Public School 89 for sheltering the kids just as they were being let out for the day; the police and fire departments and emergency medical services for turning the world’s most vulnerable city into one of the safest and most welcoming.

This is real America. Few of us may go to church or own a gun, and hardly any of us voted for the president. But we are good friends to our neighbors, look out for their children and feel nothing but gratitude for the people who protect us.

And we choose to live in a place that we know is a target for fanatics because fanatics will always target the things we prize most: openness, diversity, sky-high ambition and the belief that we are more than our racial or religious identities.

Something unreal, as people say, happened in my neighborhood Tuesday. But we stayed real, and trick-or-treating proceeded on schedule.

Bret Stephens is a New York Times columnist who normally writes about foreign policy and domestic politics.

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