Why New Yorkers Can't Afford To Be Afraid

by Suzanne Samin

When I got the push notification on my phone about a loud explosion in Chelsea on Saturday, I, like many New Yorkers, shrugged it off. According to the report, which I quickly scanned while leaving the restaurant where I'd been having dinner with my fiancé — a solid 35-minute train ride from Chelsea and its "trendy, restaurant-lined streets" — nobody was killed. I figured it was a manhole explosion or some kind of ruptured gas line situation. Nothing major.

I briefly wondered if the city was being attacked again, and then the thought vanished, along with the acknowledgement of how sad it is that I still have to wonder such a thing. Overall, though, I wasn't very concerned. Still, like a good social media addict, I kept an eye on Twitter anyway, and when the reports came out that it was in fact a deliberately placed bomb, my low level of concern mounted slightly. OK, that's a little scary. But still, no one got hurt.

While browsing the #Chelsea hashtag, though, I quickly learned that for many people around the country, this wasn't just a run-of-the-mill weird situation in the middle of an otherwise normal day. It was a big effing deal. In their eyes, I and the other chill restaurant patrons around me were in the vicinity of a major act of terror. We were supposed to be terrified, running through the streets and live-tweeting everything we saw with the frantic, electrified zeal reserved for citizen journalists who are terrified no one will live to tell the story of what is happening right in front of them, so they do it themselves.

But we weren't. And that pissed a lot of people off. I know this because I was stupid enough to tweet my thoughts about how acting like a bunch of shrieking lunatics was, in fact, exactly what a terrorist organization would want us to do. Here's what I got in response:

The reality was that I, and most New Yorkers I spoke to, were mostly unfazed by Saturday's events. Not because we think terrorism is all fine and good, and not because we're stupid, but because New Yorkers have had to live in the crosshairs of terrorism for so long that such apathy is honestly in our nature. We have no other choice. For the past 15 years, our lives have been full of random explosions, suspicious packages, false alarms, and last-minute saves. The terror alert has gone from green, to yellow, to orange, to red, and back down again in a weird paranoid rainbow that basically tells us "We're not screwed, but in a minute or so, we could be."

Since 9/11, New York City has continuously wobbled on the precipice between normal existence and sheer terror. You can feel it in the air if you stop long enough to notice. We're not oblivious to the threat of terrorism; we couldn't possibly be. We're constantly aware that our peaceful existence could be disrupted at any moment by any measure of sadistic, meaningless violence. We're reminded of it all the time — by the police presence, by the "If you see something, say something" signs, by the fact that we New Yorkers spend large swaths of our existence in big crowds or packed subway trains that practically announce themselves as terror targets.

There's the cop holding an assault rifle in front of the Starbucks at Grand Central, the soldiers leading German Shepherds with titanium-plated teeth through Times Square, and the tall, gleaming One World Trade Center tower that is visible from almost every street in Manhattan, serving as a glittering tombstone for the 3,000 people who died the last time we were naive enough to take things for granted. And there are the horrible acts of terrorism that happen all over the world on a near-daily basis, which we see on the news rather than feel up close. Those keep us real humble too, because we remember what it was like to be there.


So for me, and for many of us, an IED in a dumpster in Chelsea that blew up and injured 30 people was just another tiny seismic blip that maybe sent us a millimeter closer to terror than we were when we had our bagel for breakfast earlier that morning. We were worried it was going to happen eventually, then it happened, and when faced with the choice between losing our goddamn minds or venturing off to the deli and maybe avoiding taking public transportation for a few hours, we chose the less exhausting option. It's happened before, it's gonna happen again, and unless we all become hermetic shut-ins or evacuate the city, there's really not much we can do about it.

So here's a thought for those who feel the need to criticize how we dealt with the Chelsea bombing and how we deal with the threat of terrorism at large here: Instead of criticizing New Yorkers for our blasé attitude, accusing us of being complicit with terrorism, and blaming us for refusing to keep the fearmongering carousel a-spinning, you ought to try learning from us. The one thing that New Yorkers have understood for many years, and which many people across the U.S. are unfortunately beginning to understand, is that life in the shadow of the threat of terrorism is a profoundly heavy existence. And we've been out here living it for a long time. It is a 10,000-pound backpack that you are expected to strap to yourself wherever you go, whenever you go. And our understandable, human response is to keep living life despite the weight of societal and psychological pressure which insists we shouldn't. So when crisis strikes, we go to the deli, enjoy happy hour with our friends, and keep grinding to afford our skyrocketing rent. Because if we don't, well, then we might as well be dead. And as we've learned, the terrorists would love that.


If we don't try to keep moving forward, we have to drag that weight to work, to school, to the movie theater, to the parade, to church, to the doctor's office, and to bed with us at night. And that doesn't appear to be changing anytime soon. As it stands, terrorism isn't going anywhere. If anything, it's more securely rooted in our day-to-day lives now than it ever has been before, considering we frequently have more school shootings than days in any given year. (Friendly reminder: Most terrorists in the U.S. are white men.) And in New York, that weight is especially heavy because we are also burdened with the responsibility every single day to maintain hyper-vigilance for the good of the community.

After all, if we see something and say something, we could save thousands of people. And maybe if someone had seen something and said something all those years ago, we wouldn't have to live like this. It's been our guilt-laden "responsibility" for 15 years, as citizens of this city, to dedicate a portion of our brain energy to actively assessing everywhere we go for threats. And if that sounds exhausting, it's because it absolutely is. New York's less-than-dramatic reaction to what happened in Chelsea is just more proof that this lifestyle of fear is unsustainable. And on the brighter side, perhaps we are finally learning to step out of the shadows, if only because it is honestly our only hope.