It was around 8:30 pm on a Saturday night, and I was catching up on the dirty dishes that were piling up in the sink when I heard a loud boom from outside my apartment. Like most of the tenants in that area of New York City around E. 24th Street, I automatically assumed that the loud noise was either a vehicle that stalled or a piece of construction equipment that fell off a delivery truck. If you live in New York long enough — it only took me about a week to get used to the new scene in my overpriced, small, Gramercy district apartment — you don’t think much of the commotion outside. I went about my business as usual, washing away.
About 15 minutes later, I ritualistically jumped on Twitter, checked my feed and noticed something unusual: reports of some kind of explosion in Chelsea, about a 10 minute walk from where I was at the time. I turned on CNN, but they were in full campaign 2016 mode. I checked the local Twitter feeds of the New York television stations (I don’t have cable in my apartment) and read some preliminary information coming from the FDNY that a large explosion had shaken the Chelsea area and that police officers were closing down streets leading into the neighborhood. Ten minutes after that, more reports were coming into that an explosion had collapsed a building and that a lot of people were injured.
That’s when I decided to walk to the location and determine what was going on, and I wasn’t the only one who was curious. I was stopped somewhere on Fifth Avenue with a bunch of other people by police barricades and cops outfitted with protective vests. Emergency vehicles were streaming into the zone that the NYPD had locked off. An old woman standing next to me was wondering what was going on, so I told her about the reported explosion in the Chelsea area and that it may have been caused by an IED. She then proceeded to complain that the national press wasn’t saying anything about it.
A few blocks down, I found a larger group of people and asked a few what they knew about the situation. One told me that his building shook, and the other told me that the explosive may have been placed inside a vehicle. The NYPD officers manning the perimeter just said that an explosion occurred and that they were closing down several blocks as a precaution. We now know that NYPD counterterrorism officers were sweeping the scene for more explosives.
Later in the night, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio held a short press conference with the NYPD and FDNY commissioners at his side, in which he told New Yorkers that the explosion was an intentional act but wasn’t linked to terrorism. I found that explanation strange, particularly since authorities discovered that a second device was found on W. 27th Street.
There are myriad definitions of what constitutes terrorism. Scholars who study the issue cannot even agree on a single meaning of the word, but the general consensus is that terrorism is an act of violence in pursuit of a political or religious goal that a group or individual wouldn’t be able to achieve through normal means. Less than 48 hours later, we still don’t know the extent of the damage — only that New York was lucky that nobody died and that everyone admitted to hospitals left with only minor injuries.
But what I can say emphatically is that the New Yorkers I encountered on Saturday night, less than an hour after the first reports of an explosion in one of the densest parts of the city, were not at all terrified. More people I overheard were concerned about their restaurant or bar plans and the longer route they had to take in order to get home than about the possibility that more small-scale attacks could occur throughout New York. The NYPD cops were outstanding as always, explaining the situation to onlookers, keeping everybody calm and telling people on the street where to go if they needed to head into Chelsea. Other people, stumbling out of bars, either didn’t care what was going on or didn’t know what was going on.
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I returned to my apartment at around 10:15 pm and live-streamed CNN. The network’s coverage was sensationalist, as one might expect, speculating about who might be responsible for attack, why the attacker would choose the Chelsea neighborhood and whether this incident had anything to do with the start of the United Nations General Assembly meetings this week.
I can say unequivocally that on the streets of New York, the mood was the exact opposite of CNN’s coverage. New Yorkers on a busy Saturday night were going about their business as usual. There was no siege mentality. Besides this explosion, the city and its people carried on, like they always do.