By Aminta Kilawan Narine, Esq.
On Monday morning, New Yorkers were shaken by an explosion deemed a “terror-related incident” by Police Commissioner James O’Neill.
A pipe bomb detonated in an underground walkway near 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, one of New York City’s busiest transit hubs. The suspect, 27-year-old would-be suicide bomber Akayed Ullah, and several other people were injured during Monday morning’s rush hour. Ullah had the device affixed to his person with a combination of Velcro and zip ties.
After major delays in their commutes to work soon after the attack, New Yorkers went back to business as usual. Making light of the situation, comedian Steven Colbert said on his late-night talk show: “New York commuters don’t even flinch when the subway break dancers kick two inches away from their face. They have to battle rats for the seat, which, for the record, you should only give up if the rat is pregnant.” “You tried to terrorize New York and you failed,” Colbert continued. “We’re stronger than that. The worst you did is make the subways run late, and the MTA does that just fine without your help.”
Thankfully, the homemade bomb that Ullah had attached to himself failed to fully detonate. It was composed of a pipe stuffed with match heads. A broken Christmas tree light was the detonator. Since the bomb didn’t detonate the way it was supposed to, it didn’t produce shrapnel, a projectile shell. If it had produced shrapnel, the bomb could have been deadly. Monday’s attack didn’t severely hurt anyone except the perpetrator himself. Just a few hours after the incident, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who’ve had ongoing gripes against each other, stood side by side in a press conference to address the City. Cuomo said that “a bomb in the subway is our worst nightmare but reality was better than initial expectation and fear.” He continued to say, “We are a national target.”
Despite this fact, generally speaking, New Yorkers carry on living their daily lives without fear. Perhaps we have been desensitized. After all, our City was already shaken to its core on September 11, 2011. But we can’t be ignorant or wishfully bury our heads in the sand. This was the third attack in New York City since September 2016, and the second in two months, just a few weeks after eight people were killed in a truck attack in Tribeca on Halloween Day. Like Ullah, the Tribeca attacker also attributed his actions to allegiance for ISIS.
These attacks do go to show how powerful ISIS’ ability is to inspire others around the world to carry out its mission in lone wolf attacks that seem isolated. Luckily, great destruction was prevented on Monday because of a stroke of luck. But what if there is a well-thought out and well-funded terrorist plan to massively target NYC’s subway?
“Our lives revolve around the subway,” Mayor de Blasio said at Monday morning’s conference. “The choice of New York is always for a reason, because we are a beacon to the world. And we actually show that a society of many faiths and many backgrounds can work. The terrorists want to undermine that,” the Mayor said. “They yearn to attack New York City.”
Attacks in subways around the world are not uncommon. They also tend to be far more “successful” than Monday’s attack at Port Authority. Terrorists have struck transit systems in Madrid, London, Mumbai, and Moscow, killing hundreds. In 2003, an arsonist set fire to a train in South Korea which resulted in nearly 200 people dead and 152 injured. In August 2017, South Korea conducted “Ulchi Exercises,” its annual drill simulating bomb and poisonous gas attacks at a subway station.
In March 1995, five members of the Japanese religious cult “Aum Shinrikyo” punctured bags of sarin nerve gas in separate parts of the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 and injuring 5,000. In March 2004, Islamic radicals blew up four commuter trains in Madrid, killing 192 and injuring more than 2,000. In July 2005, suicide-bombers in London killed 56 and injured 700 on three subways and a double-decker bus. As recently as September 2017, a homemade bomb detonated on a packed London subway train during Friday morning rush hour. 29 were injured. The attack was claimed by ISIS.
Monday should have been a sobering wake-up call. The New York City subway is the largest rapid transit system in the world based on its number of stations. By annual ridership, it is also the busiest system in the Western Hemisphere. Imagine if this system, one which we depend on every day to get to and from our places of work and study, was targeted in a much more formal way than what we experienced on Monday morning? Are we as New Yorkers equipped to respond?
Mayor de Blasio said at the press conference: “When you see something say something. This makes all the difference. Don’t hold it to yourself! Tell a police officer. Speak up because you could be saving many lives by doing so.” What does that mean in practice though? If you see something suspicious and there’s no police officer around to tell, what do you do? How exactly do we prepare ourselves in the event of a terrorist attack in the subways? With a provoking President like ours, those who already wanted to target the United States are probably even more likely to do so.
New York City is particularly vulnerable. It is the crossroads of the world, where cultures from all over the world live together in peace. Our City’s diverse residents should be better prepared to respond in the case of an emergency. Every time you get on an airplane, flight attendants take you through a safety presentation. Perhaps the MTA should offer something similar to subway riders, even if through a simple social media video campaign. Certainly, riders are ill-equipped. There are some serious problems with communications on the subway. Many times, the volume of a train’s PA system is either too loud or too quiet. “The fact that one in four subway announcements are still unintelligible, that’s a bad sign,” then City Councilman John Liu told the Village Voice in 2005.
In light of all the complaints lately, the MTA is doing better about being transparent. Recently, I was on a train when a conductor said that there were delays because someone had jumped on the tracks. That’s more information than I had heard in years.
In the moment of a terrorist attack on the subway, what would a conductor say? Of course, officials would not want to cause undue alarm or chaos, so words would need to be chosen very carefully. That said, subway riders should have an understanding of how to escape a train or walk on the tracks if the situation warrants this.
Some tips could include which rails are electrified, how to escape from a train window, where underground emergency exits are, etc. For all of the fare hikes received year after year, New York City’s subway riders deserve this type of information at a minimum, before another attack, not afterward.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.