IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Month after bomb try, NYC breathes easier

Image: People play volleyball and lounge on Military Island in the middle of Times Square
People play volleyball and lounge on Military Island in the middle of Times Square in New York on May 20. A month after a failed car bombing rattled Times Square, New Yorkers have largely put the event behind them.Emile Wamsteker / Crown Imports LLC via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

On a warm spring afternoon, Times Square brims with people jostling for scarce sidewalk space, staking their claim to shaded tables and enjoying a day out in one of the world's flashiest, most famous spots. Few cast a second glance at the parked cars flanking the sidewalk stands.

Police officers are visible on every block, and the smoking SUV found packed with propane and gasoline a month ago seems a distant memory.

"It feels like the safest place in New York," said Courtney John, who works in Times Square. But, she added, "That could change if something else happens."

Suspect Faisal Shahzad was in custody two days after the May 1 attack. After that — on the surface, at least — there was defiance and adherence to routine. "What else are you going to do?" asks Valerie Andsager, a New Yorker waiting for a friend in Times Square. "You can't be on your guard every minute."

No shortage of tourists
While federal investigators have fanned out to Pakistan and across the country to identify the scope of what they call a serious terror plot against the U.S., the same throngs of tourists are waiting in line for Broadway shows and buying knockoff handbags. Cars are parked three deep in no-standing zones.

In a poll and interviews, some New Yorkers say Times Square is back in business, although some who are there every day still report lingering fears about the botched bombing.

New Yorkers like to say they're the toughest people in the world. Sidewalk vendors talk of how they tackle pickpockets on the street. Other residents point to the way the city bounced back from the 9/11 attacks. In a city of so many distractions, they say, there's no time to be constantly looking over your shoulder. And in a city of around 2 million vehicles, it's not easy to stay worried about a single one.

"New Yorkers aren't afraid of anything," said Patricia Danzey, a lifetime New Yorker. "If something happens, we're back the next day."

A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed 86 percent of New Yorkers surveyed have not changed their daily routines since the bombing attempt. But nearly 70 percent are worried about another terrorist attack. The poll, conducted by telephone in the weeks after the failed attack, had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Chalking it all up to the fabled New York pluck would be a little too simplistic, however. Human reactions to threats and danger are related to the way the brain works, says George Bonanno, a Columbia University professor of clinical psychology who has studied New Yorkers after 9/11 and other disasters.

Daily life reasserts itself
For most people, he says, the what-ifs are stored away and the brain moves on to other things.

"Even in places that are dangerous, where things like this happen all the time, people can't go around worrying all the time," Bonanno says.

Daily life has a way of reasserting itself and not just in New York. It happened in London and Madrid after major bombings there; it has happened in Jerusalem for years. Even in Baghdad, during the height of the insurgency, people kept to their daily routines in markets that had just experienced fatal bombings.

Yet jitters often manage to trickle out. Reports of suspicious packages in New York are up in recent weeks, and police called in the bomb squad after someone reported an abandoned cooler a week after the failed bombing. The squad also combed through an abandoned truck on a Manhattan bridge. Both were false alarms.

In the square itself, an increased police presence is aimed at calming fears. For some people, it's working.

"I'm not going to let anyone chase us," handbag vendor Dave Schulter said last week. "You can't let people terrorize you."

The stepped-up police patrols don't satisfy everyone. Sidewalk vendor Alioune Niass, who sells photos at the spot where police defused the car bomb, doesn't feel safe. As black bags of garbage are stacked on the curb behind his stall, he eyes the rising refuse mountain with suspicion.

"How do I know what's in the black bags?" Niass asked as a man heaved three more sacks against the curb beside him. "This garbage is sometimes piled this high," he said, gesturing to his chest. "We never know if someone put a bomb in there."

'I have to support my family'
Niass, a Senegalese immigrant, said he wants to move his stall to another corner, but street vendors are territorial. "There is no other corner for me to go, so I stay here," he said. "I have to support my family."

Few others will admit to feeling worried, be they tourists or natives. A random sampling of visitors stopped in the area seemed carefree, even blase.

"It could happen anywhere," said Hilbrand Urs, a Swiss tourist. "You have to stay home to be completely safe, and you can't just do that."

For Danzey, the native New Yorker, it's business as usual.

"I figure whatever is going to happen is going to happen," she said as she waited to meet her niece on a sunny afternoon in Times Square. "If I happen to be there when a bomb goes off, then it must be my time to go."

But even a fatalist like Danzey worries for her 19-year-old niece, Michelle Mitchell, who is new to the city. Mitchell was interviewing for a job at the Times Square Toys R Us.

"I'll probably come to meet her here sometimes after work," Danzey said. "Not too much because young people don't like old people to be around them too much. But I'll still come some days. She might not know what to watch out for."