It’s hard to consider a city that sustained the worst terror attack in history lucky. But when you look at the attempts made since 9-11 (and a few prior) to cause widespread carnage in New York, you have to count the blessings. In a city that seems to top terrorists’ most wanted list, plots have been hatched to bomb Bronx synagogues, Herald Square, the Lincoln Tunnel, the subway, the Long Island Rail Road and other sites with an extremely fortunate track record of 0.
There have been other forms of terrorism here, dating back to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1969 by a Palestinian gunman incensed by the senator’s policy on arming Israel. Then there was the fatal 1994 Brooklyn Bridge attack on chasidic kids by a Lebanese man who later claimed postwar trauma from Israel’s attacks on Beirut. Three years later an Egyptian man opened fire on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, killing a non-Jewish tourist, wounding others and killing himself. He left a note vowing to target “Zionists in their den.”
There have been two recent bomb blasts at the British Consulate and the Times Square recruiting station that seemed intended not to hurt anyone. But we’ve been pretty lucky when it comes to bombs. You only have to think of Belfast in the 70s, Jerusalem in the 1990s or contemporary Baghdad to imagine a place where blasts with high civilian death tolls are a regular part of life, and the impact on the city’s morale and economy.
[New York seems even more blessed considering the news that investigators have linked the Times Square attack to the Pakistani Taliban, a group with a far better track record of destruction than the free-lancers we have seen in the past.]
Even when you consider the horror of the two World Trade Center attacks, the impact of each could have been worse, if the 1993 bomb had been powerful enough to weaken the foundation of the towers, or if so many thousands hadn’t been evacuated before the 2001 collapses. Had either of the buildings toppled horizontally that day, rather than implode, the death toll on the ground would have been even more unimaginable.
It’s tempting to say, then, that the city is blessed, maybe because of its great openness and diversity, having turned its back on its history as a center of the slave trade with abolition more than three decades before the Emancipation Proclamation.
But the flip side of saying you are blessed is to say that other places that have suffered from the designs of evil humans or of nature are less worthy. Anyone who presumes to understand divine intervention on earth is fooling his or herself. It has always been troubling for me to think that when we praise God for our good fortune, the other side of the coin is to blame him for tragedies, so better to steer clear of that road and leave it a mystery, focusing instead on our own actions.
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis and the fire department’s Jewish chaplain stresses the human element of all these dramas, from the street vendors who acted quickly to alert authorities in Times Square to the cops, FBI agents and informers who thwarted some of the bombers.
“The divine hand is conveyed through the human hand,” he says. “It’s the human response to crisis that always makes the difference.”
No doubt it’s vigilance and a combination of luck and the ineptitude of the would-be bombers that contributes most to a casualty rate that is too high, but far below what our enemies crave. But even if its wishful thinking, it’s nice to believe that someone up there is looking out for us.