I am marvelling at the resilience of New York City. Yesterday afternoon a real monster visited Lower Manhattan, weaponising a truck in the foul Isis fashion to mow down scores of citizens, killing eight. Yet just a few hours later the streets of Manhattan were thronging with pretend monsters. With vampires, skeletons, witches, Leatherfaces and other fancy-dress freaks, blood-stained and drunk, acting at being menacing but really being merry, gathered in their thousands for the Halloween Parade.
Where I watched them stream by, at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 14th St, there were hundreds of people pressed together, a heaving, happy crowd. They whooped and Instagrammed as floats with giant monsters and dancing dead people passed by. Isis fanatics want us to feel insecure in crowds, in cities, at big public events, whether it’s a celebration of the birth of French democracy in Nice or a pop gig in Manchester. They target these bawdy clusters of citizens to try to ratchet up fear, and make us feel like targets all the time. But there was none of that in monstrous Manhattan last night. This throng felt free and relaxed and fearless – aside from the fear the fake monsters tried to whip up.
There’s something special, something so New York, in the fact that mere hours after an Islamist terrorist sought to terrify New Yorkers, New Yorkers were gaily terrifying each other. And this morning, Manhattan feels like its normal self. Sure, I’m hearing conversations everywhere about the terror attack. But downtown is back to being busy and open, cyclists shooting by, people hustling and rushing. New York is the city equivalent of elastic: you can pull or poke it, but it comes back to where it was. I mean, Lower Manhattan is a place where the skyline is dominated by the glittering blue Freedom Tower, which replaced the Twin Towers. It’s the architectural equivalent of a middle finger to terrorism, a steel-and-glass ‘Screw you’ to the last guys who, with far greater impact, tried to terrorise this island.
And yet while New York and its inhabitants refuse to be cowed by violent Islamist misanthropes, the US more broadly, in particular its liberal set, seems incapable of confronting the problem of Islamic violence head-on and honestly. The press and Twittersphere is full this morning of musings on why the Manhattan attack is called terrorism but the mass shooting in Vegas last month wasn’t. Why President Trump expressed sorrow and sent condolences after Vegas, but swiftly talked about terrorism and politics after Manhattan. He seems to have a different perception of ‘the sort of threat each perpetrator represents’, says the Washington Post, as if such an approach, such a desire to distinguish between different kinds of violence, were somehow a bad thing.
In the US, as in Europe, there’s a weird instinct among some observers to avoid talking about the specific and unique nature of Islamist terrorism, in favour of lumping it in with every other bad thing in society. It looks like an attempt to drag public attention away from violent Islamism, or at least to dilute that public attention, to tame it, by effectively saying: ‘Well, this terror is not that different to when some crazy bloke shoots people in Vegas or a school.’
Not only is this deeply dishonest (everyone knows that terrorism means political violence, and that political violence is designed to have a qualitatively different and more dire impact on society than other murderous acts); it also implicitly discourages targeted debate about this deeply disturbing religious violence that blights the 21st-century West, and which has claimed more than 400 lives in Europe in the past three years alone. It’s a sly form of moral and intellectual deflection, a chilling of public discussion, and more importantly of public anger, through conflation and obfuscation. A violent radical Islamist strikes and people say: ‘Yeh, but what about that big shooting by a white man a few months ago? Everyone can be violent.’ Translation: ‘Please don’t focus too much on Islam.’
New Yorkers have shown how morally resourceful they are over the past 24 hours. Now we need some of that in the broader discussion of Islamist terrorism. No more excuse-making, no more sly distractions, no more ‘This has nothing to do with Islam’. We shouldn’t live in fear of the new terrorism, but we should be honest about it: it is specific, it is religious, it is barbaric, and it is okay to want to do something to stop it.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and is currently based in New York City.