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A bomb exploded and injured 29 people in Chelsea on Saturday night, and a rigged pressure cooker was found a few blocks away from the blast site, but at a press conference on Sunday afternoon Mayor Bill de Blasio refused to tell New Yorkers that they had experienced a terrorist attack.
“Here’s what we know: It was intentional, it was a violent act, it was certainly a criminal act, it was a bomb. That’s what we know,” de Blasio told a room of reporters. “To understand any specific motivations — political motivations, any connection to an organization, that’s what we don’t know. I think that it’s important to say what we know and what we don’t know.”
A few hours earlier, at his own press conference, Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “A bomb exploding in New York is obviously an act of terrorism. A bomb going off is generally a terrorist activity. That’s how we’ll consider it. And that’s how we will prosecute it.”
Pressed to respond to the governor’s comments, de Blasio said, “Let’s let the law enforcement experts draw the conclusions.”
On one hand, the mayor’s decision could be seen as a way of contrasting himself with fearmongering bigots like Donald Trump, who told a crowd in Colorado that a “bomb went off in New York” before any public officials had confirmed the cause of the explosion, and used it as an opportunity to explain why “we’ve got to get very tough.” Hillary Clinton was also cautious when she told reporters that “it’s…wiser to wait until you have information before making conclusions.”
Yet now, while the FBI and NYPD’s Joint Terrorism Task Force investigates the incident, while the bomb squad dissects the pressure cooker, while thousands of heavily armed counterterrorism officers and members of the National Guard flood the city’s streets, refusing to speak plainly about a terrorist attack seems equally disingenuous and nakedly political.
The NYPD boasts about the twenty terrorist plots it has “foiled” since 9-11 (a generous number, as some of those plans were less than fully baked). If the police had thwarted a plan to explode a homemade bomb in Chelsea, would that not have been number 21 on the list?
NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill — Saturday was his first full day on the job — admitted as much during the mayor’s press conference, while also declining to refer to the explosion as terrorism.
“We talked about this over the last few years, how we foiled twenty plots in New York City — that was done by a very professional, highly trained law enforcement agency, and this violent, criminal act is going to be solved by the same people,” O’Neill told reporters. “If it is an act of terrorism, we’re gonna come out and say it.”
Coming out and saying it in this climate is also an admission of defeat. The illusion that more guns, more cameras, more screeners, more force, makes us substantially safer from a terrorist attack is one that no politician is willing to confront, even if New Yorkers themselves know better.
“New Yorkers are not intimidated by anything, it’s something we’re very proud of,” the mayor said, relating some details about his tour of Chelsea this morning. “[The explosion] worried them, for sure, but they also said it was not going to change anything they were going to do today.”
So if New Yorkers aren’t afraid of the word “terrorism,” why are our public officials?