On Halloween afternoon, a man later identified as the twenty-nine-year-old Sayfullo Saipov drove a rented pickup truck off the West Side Highway and onto a bike lane, causing pedestrians, some of them costumed children, to scatter, and killing eight people and injuring eleven more. A couple of hours after Saipov exited the truck, allegedly shouting, in Arabic, his allegiance to Allah, and was wounded by police, New York City’s leadership called for the fortitude that has become customarily demanded of inhabitants of cities worldwide after attacks of this kind. “New Yorkers are strong, New Yorkers are resilient, and our spirit will never be moved by an act of violence, an act meant to intimidate us,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. Governor Andrew Cuomo echoed the Mayor, stressing that the violence would not change or deter New Yorkers “in any matter shape or form.” Accompanying these invocations were reassurances that New Yorkers were uninterested in, and impervious to, hate—that the city would reflexively eject racism. “New Yorkers don’t have an hysterical fear of Muslims, so no one bother marketing that here,” the popular television journalist Joy Ann Reid said. Tragedy was immediately leavened by the notion that New York City would not allow more of the same.
Terror is designed to provoke a reactionary response; to negate this, we are urged to turn shock into pride, and rapidly. In the aftermath of recent attacks, cities have been instantly aggrandized, and victims made into icons. The attack in Las Vegas brought the hashtag #LasVegasStrong, before the shooting largely disappeared from the news. One month later, we learn that some survivors cannot afford their medical bills. In New York, the rhetoric of resilience comes with a particular defensiveness, one fuelled by a sense of exceptionalism. Under #NYCStrong, people post messages of indomitability—nothing could ever scare this city; no one can bring New Yorkers down. The day after Halloween, Spotify published a “NYC Strong” playlist, featuring a mash of anthems like Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” and Nas’s “N.Y. State of Mind.” Coverage of the city’s Halloween festivities amplified the sentiment: people were “flippant,” revelling with “zeal and verve,” as they traipsed through Greenwich Village for the holiday’s annual parade. The New York Knicks shared a black-and-white photo of the illuminated Empire State building with the hashtag placed at its center.
Officials have called Saipov’s attack, which he has said that he committed in the name of ISIS, the deadliest act of terrorism in the city since 9/11. This activates certain alarms. Since Tuesday, my thoughts have turned to when, from the kitchen window, I watched my neighbor entering his home after sundown, his skin coated by what I, at nine years old, could only assume was some alien version of snow. During the week of September 24, 2001, when the city’s public schools fully resumed operation, a few friends and I had already perfected a routine of huddling behind a trailer in our school’s yard as a group of students prowled the grounds, looking for brown children to pummel before the morning bell. In October, Mayor Rudy Giuliani told the United Nations that the attack had made the city “stronger, more determined, and more resolved.”
My own feelings about the promotion of #NYCStrong are split. Strength, or perhaps righteous stubbornness, surely lives in the bones of New York City strivers. And it is a relief that we’ve not yet witnessed violent Islamophobic overtures in the city this week—even as the President continues to threaten his ban. The city’s tradition of virulent discrimination cannot be expunged from daily life, however. On Wednesday, Jennifer Gonnerman visited Brooklyn’s Little Pakistan, where Uzbek immigrants were rushing to plant American flags in storefront windows. Hate crimes against Muslim people in America have reached “9/11-era levels,” according to the F.B.I.; preëmpting retaliatory hate by expressing fealty to America has become a wearying ritual for many.
After 9/11, New York became a more hostile place for hundreds of thousands of people. Muslims, and people mistaken for Muslims, suffered economic and physical injury. The New York Police Department implemented a massive network of “religious profiling and suspicionless surveillance of Muslims in New York City and beyond,” according to the A.C.L.U. (Earlier this year, a judge approved a settlement in a lawsuit against the department.) Meanwhile, stop-and-frisk, implemented under the former police commissioner Ray Kelly, hampered the movements of hundreds of thousands of black and brown people. Recent summers have seen militarized responses to demonstrators protesting the police killings of black residents. As part of a national raid, ICE arrested forty-five people citywide in September. Last year, a man set fire to a Muslim woman’s clothing while she was window shopping on Fifth Avenue. The fears many children felt after 9/11—and the encouragements to not wear certain clothes, to modify or Americanize names—were the ripples of something much more far-reaching, systemic, and insidious than we could have understood.
Our investment in the platitudes of civic grit has intensified in the time since one of New York’s own sons secured his power in Washington. The city has taken pains to distance itself from Donald Trump’s style of coarse bigotry, and from the flare-ups of white supremacy elsewhere in the country. “I am Muslim, I am NYC” posters were plastered on subways and buses last year. (The portraits, of citizens posed proudly against quaint city backdrops, seemed designed to temper the surveillance aesthetic of the “If You See Something, Say Something” initiative.) The city has declared its district a sanctuary for people who are undocumented. Ads for de Blasio’s reëlection campaign currently show workers smiling, assuring voters that the Mayor won’t let Trump touch our city. This energy, I think, masks a deep awareness of our current dilemma. There is, as Mark Harris wrote last week in New York magazine, a “quiet mortification” in being a New Yorker during Trump’s Presidency: “What haunts us one year into the horror is the possibility that he did it because we taught him.” The idea that cultural liberalism was ever impervious to the nuances of white supremacy has, by now, been undone. This week, following the first indictments in the special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, dreams of New York City’s moral rectitude propagated alongside dreams of Trump’s impeachment. But there are walls in this city that precede the President.