NEW YORK - The blizzard that hit New York last week dumped 24 inches on the city and paralyzed almost all surface transport. But New York’s subways, which were begun in 1904, kept on zipping along, heedless of the tempest above.
The city’s subways carry 5.2 million riders daily to 468 stations. The fabled D train even goes from Manhattan to the beaches at far off Coney Island and Rockaway. Before the era of air conditioning, escaping by subway to Long Island’s spacious beaches was the only way of avoiding madness from New York’s oppressive summer heat and humidity.
Compared to the Big Apple’s subways, the rest of the country’s system look like little choo choos.
Subways are the city’s vital arteries. On the hurtling express train, it takes 20 minutes to cover the seven miles from 96th Street to Wall Street – provided the train does not catch fire, flood, or break down. A friend of mine calls New York’s often evil, filthy subways, `the electric sewer.’ Yes, but there is often no other way to get up or downtown in New York’s traffic gridlock.
At the age of six, I used to go to school every day by subway, taking three trains to get from the Upper West Side to the lower East Side at Gramercy Park. The trip, requiring three transfers, took about an hour and required negotiating the disgusting and scary 42nd Street Shuttle. We tough little New Yorkers didn’t ride sissy school buses or be driven in a van by mama.
On the way to and back from school, I used to fight off gangs, all sorts of perverts and molesters, thieves, and lunatics. Just a normal school day in the Big Apple.
Federal, state and city authorities have long feared New York’s subway system was the leading target for attack by anti-American groups. Security is intense, but the vulnerability remains: a single major attack with explosive, poison gas or germs could cripple the world’s financial center and deal a devastating political blow to the White House which is under relentless attack by Republicans who are demanding more torture, more assassinations and less legality.
The week before last, an Afghan emigrant named Najibullah Zazi pled guilty in a New York court to planning to set off home-made explosives in the city’s subway to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Zazi, an airport shuttle bus driver from Denver, determined to stage an attack on civilians in New York to protest the US-led war in Afghanistan.
Sporting a lush Islamic beard and accented English, and making no efforts to conceal his activities, Zazi bought carts full of acetone and peroxide from beauty supply stores to confect a home-made bomb.
One does not see many fully-bearded Muslims shopping in beauty supply stores.
Zazi stuck out like an Islamic sore thumb and was quickly identified five months ago as a terrorism target by the FBI. The government tracks sales of explosives ingredients like acetone, hydrogen peroxide and fertilizer.
The Afghan emigrant was arrested as he drove into New York with his explosive materials. Some of Zazi’s relatives in New York were also arrested and charged with terrorism.
Luckily for the city, Zazi was a bumbling dope, not a master terrorist. In fact, most Muslims charged with terrorism in the US, Britain, Canada, and Europe have also been home-grown amateurs protesting over Afghanistan or Iraq. Some were drawn into terrorist plots and egged on by government provocateurs, a favorite tactic of the old Soviet NKVD and KGB secret police.
These home-grown young extremists were not experts trained or sent by al-Qaida, as authorities have claimed to make the arrests seem more important and show governments are successfully fighting anti-Western groups.
They were mostly young men who were violently reacting to Western military operations in the Muslim world, not attacking the West because, as President George Bush so deceitfully claimed, they hated its values and freedoms. This was not mindless terrorism but direct blowback from our actions.
Still, these angry amateurs can be a serious danger. I was on the London Underground on 7 July, 2005, when a group of young British Muslim men set off explosive devices very similar to what Zazi intended to build. The bombs killed 56 and injured 700. I just missed a nerve gas attack in Tokyo’s subway by fanatical cultists.
No protest targeting civilians or public transport has any legitimacy or justification. Attacking civilians violates Islamic law and is opposed by 98% of Muslims. Those who conduct such crimes are a tiny minority, much like the 19th century bomb-throwing anarchists. But as Western wars against the Muslim world expand, they generate more and more of these violent young men who equate their planned attacks on civilian targets with US bombing of Afghan and Iraqi cities and towns.
A final caution: Zazi confessed after prosecutors threatened to imprison his entire family. A former Bush administration `terrorism expert’ boasted on CNN how threatening suspect’s families with prosecution gave the government useful `leverage.’ She would have found a happy home chez the Soviet secret police.
This is exactly how the Soviet secret police got people to sign confessions during the 1930’s purges. In fact, the great 1936 purges began right after the Soviet courts changed the law to allow the arrest of children over 12 years. That gave the NKVD a potent lever for getting parents to confess under threat their children would be jailed and disappear.
We also learn that CIA interrogators menaced suspects with an electric power drill, and threatened to arrest their families.
Is this what we have really become? Sinking to the level of the Iraqi secret police.
Security is vital, but equally so upholding the law and democratic values.
Two crimes do not make a right.