It is lonely at the top, even if 8 million others dwell at those heights with you. New Yorkers’ famously fatalistic attitude about the dangers of the world is holding fast nearly three years after the attacks that devastated Lower Manhattan.
For all the angst over the threat to Disney World, Seattle's space needle or the Mall of America, New York City has never budged from the top of the al-Qaida hit list. No wonder New Yorkers are asking, 'Why us?'
The capital of capitalism
The quick and simple answer being put forth by federal counter-terrorism officials is New York City’s place as the financial capital of America. With America’s most important stock exchange, two of its five largest banks, (J.P. Morgan Chase, Citigroup), most of its major brokerage houses and the headquarters of dozens of Fortune 500 corporations, the economic impact of attacks on New York City cannot be duplicated elsewhere. Add the presence of America's most powerful media companies, and you have a good shot at maximum exposure for your terrorist handiwork.
As Osama bin Laden himself bragged in an audio tape released in April, “after the strike of the New York blessed days, thanks to God, their losses exceed a trillion dollars. Their budgets have been in deficits for the third year in a row.”
But targeting New York brings more than the promise of financial reward, according to Middle Eastern and counter-terrorism experts. While it is no longer true that New York City is home to more Jews than Israel (this has not been true since the 1960s), New York indisputably is the city with the largest Jewish population in the world (about 1 million*). The United States remains the country with the largest Jewish population (est. 5.8 million) in the world.
The largest Jewish city in the world
“New York is a two-for-one deal,” says Juliette Kayyem, an expert in domestic security at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “I think there’s a sense in the outside world that New York is a Jewish city, not simply because of who lives there, but because of the stereotypes that exist in many places of Jews being the financiers and bankers. Jews, for al-Qaida, are kind of the ultimate enemy, and it must make New York an especially prime target.”
Dr. Shireen Hunter, a specialist in Islamic affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says these stereotypes reinforce prejudiced and ignorant views in the Middle East and feed political anger over Washington’s tilt toward Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“This is not confined to the Middle East, but it is part of that view that regards world finance in general as directly or indirectly controlled by the Jews,” says Dr. Hunter, who is Iranian by birth. “There is that sort of linkage, though I think the overall financial impact is the more important factor that New York is facing.”
Density and audacity
Another factor, according to counter-terrorism and military officials, is the very density of the city.
“Look, we didn’t bomb the German or Japanese countryside in World War II,” says a defense counter-intelligence official who requested anonymity. “If you are going to strike only once in several years, you are committed to spectacular results. New York is really the only place where a near-miss would still cause massive collateral damage.”
As an example, the official pointed to the first World Trade Center bombing of 1993, “a really bungled attack, but even that attack had to be viewed as a success in their eyes.”
Kayyem notes that al-Qaida has a history of returning to the scene of previous attacks. “It would mean a lot to al-Qaida, I think, to revisit the same site. They did just than at the Trade Center in 2001, finishing what they started in the early 1990s.”
Homeland pork barrel
All of this has New York City’s mayor and congressional delegation a bit upset. Ever since 2002, they have argued that the Bush administration’s homeland security funding is spread across the 50 states in much the way defense contractors spread their most important projects: with a dollop for each and every district to make sure no one complains about the money.
The result has been absurd. According to congressional figures, Wyoming is receiving $37 per head to secure its citizenry, while a New Yorker’s head is valued at only $5.38 in federal eyes. “It is the kind of shortsighted, me-first nonsense that gives Washington a bad name,” Bloomberg told the presidential 9/11 commission in the spring. “It also has the effect of aiding and abetting those who hate us and fought against us.”
That's a shame. New York remains al-Qaida's chief target. Sure, they would like to hit the White House or Congress, but now that the element of surprise has been blunted, al-Qaida knows the cost-benefit analysis favors more attention on the big target represented by the Big Apple.
“There’s a kind of ‘screw you’ benefit to being able to attack New York again,” says Kayyem. “It would say that everything you’ve done in the last three years has had no benefit in terms of our ability to attack you. It would say that whatever we do, we’ll always be vulnerable.”
Rest easy in Wyoming folks. As everyone knows, including Osama bin Laden, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
*Editor's Note: An earlier version of the column put the Jewish population of New York at 1.8 million, an outdated figure reflecting New York's surburbs. Thanks to reader Scott Tepper for pointing this out.
Michael Moran's Brave New World column appears weekly on MSNBC.com.