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Argentines Grapple With Terror Attack in N.Y. That Hit Close to Home

“There’s this feeling that nothing will ever happen to you coming from Argentina, being so far away from war and terrorism,” the victims' classmate said
From left, Hernan Ferruchi, Alejandro Pagnucco, Ariel Erlij, Ivan Brajckovic, Juan Pablo Trevisan, Hernan Mendoza, Diego Angelini and Ariel Benvenuto, gather for a group photo at the airport in Argentina before their trip to New York on Oct. 28. Mendoza, Angelini, Pagnucco, Erlij and Ferruchi were killed in the bike path attack near the World Trade Center. They were part of a group of friends celebrating the 30th anniversary of their high school graduation with a trip to New York City.Courtesy of Trevisan family via AP

Pablo Boczkowski, a professor of media studies at Northwestern University in Illinois, was visiting friends in Buenos Aires last week, and they mourned the five Argentines killed in a truck attack in New York.

Grieving, his friends assumed the Oct. 31 attack would have caused a “collective psychosis” in the United States, Bockowski said. They asked him if he would "stop doing certain things" and telling his children not to go to certain places, he told NBC News.

“But I have never thought about that," said Boczkowski, an Argentine who has lived in the U.S. since 1994. “This is what life looks like now.”

In the United States, the attack in New York added fuel to national debates about immigration and terrorism, after President Donald Trump condemned the diversity lottery visa program that the Uzbek man charged in the attack, Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, used to enter the country. Saipov is accused of plowing a rented truck into bicyclists and pedestrians in lower Manhattan, killing eight people.

In Argentina, a nation of immigrants in its own right, many have expressed shock that this kind of deadly mass attack — one that authorities said was inspired by the Islamic State — could hit so close to home.

“From the outside, this situation acquires a certain level of broader impact," Boczkowski said.

The five Argentine victims — Hernán Diego Mendoza, Diego Enrique Angelini, Alejandro Damián Pagnucco, Ariel Erlij and Hernán Ferruchi — were part of a group of high school classmates who were in New York to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their graduation.

At a news conference last Friday, the four survivors in their group issued an emotional statement grieving the loss of their friends and the attack as a whole.

"What has the world become? How could someone think of, plan and execute an act like this? It's unthinkable," the survivors said in the statement, read by one of them, Guillermo Banchini.

For those on the outside, that word — "unthinkable" — was an appropriate way to characterize the truck attack.

“There’s this feeling that nothing will ever happen to you coming from Argentina, being so far away from war and terrorism,” Laura Racca, who attended the same high school as the victims, told the Argentine newspaper La Nación. “It’s this crazy aspect of globalization from which we’re not exempt — we’re so far away, but this can happen to us too.”

Reinaldo Laddaga, who grew up in Rosario, the city where the victims were from, said that he and others he had spoken with were shocked at the seeming randomness of the bikers’ death.

“It was a sort of butterfly effect. It was the meeting in one space of two things that had nothing to do with the other: the truck driver from Uzbekistan with the group of Argentine friends on vacation,” he said. “In every other terror incident, there seems to be at least some kind of narrative cohesion.”

Flowers and an Argentinean flag are placed as part of a makeshift memorial to remember the victims of the attack near the crime scene, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017, in New York.Andres Kudacki / AP

The word “terrorism” in Argentina largely still refers to the kidnappings and murders committed by a military regime during the 1970s and 80s, when hundreds of political dissidents, students and members of the Left disappeared.

But global conflicts fueled by the Islamic State or other terrorist forces have remained little more than news items out of the Middle East, the U.S. and Western Europe.

Mary Bensuley, a family friend of Erlij’s, told The Washington Post that “religion has never been a big subject of conversation” in Argentina, where “everyone lives in peace.”

“There are big debates about politics and soccer, but religion? Not really. We’re Catholics and we have Jewish, atheist and Mormon friends. Muslim friends, too,” she said. “Our pain is for the innocent and unjust deaths of people who have nothing to do with the craziness that brought [about] this terrible damage.”

Still, there are two notable exceptions of religiously fueled violence: Buenos Aires, the capital, suffered a set of bombings in the early 1990s targeting the city’s Jewish population, with one at the Israeli embassy in 1992 and another at a community center two years later.

Agustín Zbar, the president of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA), said that the New York attack was a potent reminder of the wounds of these bombings — and of a risk that he says has always been present for Argentine Jews.

“The five Argentine citizens killed in the terrorist attack in New York are, regrettably, a kind of continuation of the 85 Argentines and foreigners who were killed here at AMIA,” he told NBC News.

Zbar also mentioned the violent death of Reuben Eduardo Birmajer, an Argentinean rabbi who was fatally beaten in 2016 outside Jerusalem’s Old Gates.

But Boczkowski said Tuesday’s attack struck a different chord, compared to both government kidnappings and the targeted bombings of Jewish institutions.

“In those cases, what you have are a more traditional or different kind of terrorism. It’s massive, well planned, against very prominent targets,” he said. “That is a different kind of target than a busy street. … It’s not the lone wolf type of story that you’re seeing in New York.”

For him, the kind of shock being felt in Argentina ultimately points to the ways he said the United States has come to treat terror attacks and other violent incidents.

“It speaks about the culture, the inside/outside, how much we have normalized and accepted this contemporary condition," he said.

As Boczkowski and his friends continued speaking, one suggested that they go on the same kind of group trip the victims had been on.

“But then we said, well, maybe we shouldn’t go to one of these places in the U.S. that's so touristy. There might be one of these situations.”