NEW YORK – A helicopter hovered in a pristine blue sky far above the Ernst & Young building on Times Square, like a praying mantis with silent, rotating wings, defying gravity. On the ground, there’s a surreal feel of a parade – a motley, noisy, colorful throng of people jammed up against police tapes at street intersections on Seventh Avenue and Broadway, taking photos and selfies, inching, thrusting forward for a better look, as if in anticipation of the beginning of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or New Year’s eve ball drop; surrounded by dozens of ambulances from the FDNY, police cars, policemen, flashing billboards, the NASDAQ ticker.
The movie-scene-like setup though is not for a carnival celebration or parade: just before noon on a sultry day, May 19, Alyssa Elsman, an 18-year-old tourist from Michigan seeing the sights with her family, was mowed down, her life snuffed in an instant by a speeding car from hell, driven the wrong way on a single lane road. Behind the wheels was Richard Rojas, 26, a former member of the US Armed Forces with a history of DWI arrests.
Whether influenced by drugs, alcohol, or from ulterior motives as yet unknown, Rojas ran his car over three blocks at high speed, on the road and sidewalks, on Seventh Avenue, colliding into nearly two dozen other people, including the 13-year-old sister of Elsman, before his maroon-colored Honda sedan crashed into traffic poles, came to a standstill, on 44th Street. Four people are left critical, battling for life in hospital. Dozens more, relatives and friends of the victims, are grieving, coping with the tragedy.
After his dastardly act, Rojas tried to flee, even physically confronted policemen, before he was subdued, arrested, as hundreds of office-goers peered down from high-rise buildings that flashed billboard displaying ads of Champs vs. Pros, Lion King, Wonder Woman; some passerby ran helter-skelter, leaving their shoes behind, others stood like dumbstruck mannequins, as if borrowed from the nearby Madame Tussauds.
In a matter of an hour, a vast swath of businesses were affected in Times Square; tens of millions of dollars of productivity, revenue, lost. Employees were barred by police from going back to their workplace after lunch; restaurants forced to stop serving guests at the busiest time of the day. Tourists were left gaping, cursing their bad luck on vacation.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, at a news conference in Times Square shortly after the incident, tried to stem suspicion and rumors of a terrorist attack, the mention of which not only makes New Yorkers shudder, involuntarily panic, but shakes financial indices and markets around the world, rattles economies.
“There is no indication that this was an act of terrorism,” de Blasio said.
But, for New York City, it’s a chilling reminder of how even a drastic traffic incident – if this was truly one – can cause mayhem and chaos in an instant; emanate into worst fears-come- true, for the United States.
It remains to be seen if Rojas was under the influence of drugs or alcohol or if he was a radicalized terrorist – one who took inspiration from terrorism inflicted by running a vehicle into a crowd, termed by Canadian columnist Andrew Coyne as a form of “micro-terrorism”, with several instances in the recent past, including in Stockholm, London, Jerusalem, Berlin, and the worst one occurring in Nice, France.
Last year, on July 14, a large truck driven by a terrorist drove into crowds celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais, in Nice, killing 86 people, injuring 434.
The US has had its brush with this kind of ‘micro-terrorism’ before. On November 28, 2016, a Somali refugee inspired by ISIL, Abdul Razak Ali Artan, rammed a vehicle into people and went on a stabbing spree, at Ohio State University, in Columbus. There were no fatalities, but 13 people were injured.
The effect of the noon mayhem in Times Square was immediately felt in other parts of New York City, like cracks and fissures in the ground, created by an earthquake.
Security tightened in all areas, emergency action measures were initiated; groups of police in riot gear stood warily at public transit points, from Madison Square to Grand Central. Some subway stops were closed. Commuters stood peering into their phones, took in updates from social media. Tweets with photos from ground level and high above the ground from office high-rises ran seamlessly with spurts of rumors, TV news blasts.
It’s difficult to gauge if compelling photos on social media is a matter of comfort or fear for this city of 8.4 million people.
In the non-existent social media world of 9/11 terrorist attacks, New Yorkers commiserated with each other, stayed glued to their TV sets in homes and bars, read newspapers – got verified news, as far as the number of deaths and rescue operations were concerned.
Today, in a world of a tsunami of news, it’s hard to differentiate, gauge between fact and fiction, truth and lies. There’s fertile ground for instant fear to be sown and reaped. Be it on Main Street or Wall Street, bad news is shaped to benefit some people; some know how to leverage bad news to their benefit; profit from fear; score political points, move forward agendas based on even a semblance of fear.
No doubt, today’s incident will lead to more security at Times Square, other tourist attractions.
But worldwide, bustling cities live under a common, unspoken fear: how do you control an obsessed maniac from driving a vehicle into a crowd?