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What if I hadn’t slept in? A gunman shot up my train this morning

The 36th Street subway station where 10 people were shot and wounded during Tuesday morning’s commute is a place I pass through nearly every day.

It is one stop from the Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park, where I live, and on my commute to Lower Manhattan I often switch at that station from the D train to the R or the N, the line on which a man I can only describe as a terrorist set off a canister of smoke and opened fire at 8:24 a.m. I might well have been right there, right then, had I not felt a little lazy this morning and rolled back under the blanket.

But I am just one of the millions of New Yorkers who rely on the subway system who have spent the day thinking “It could have been me.” The victims of this shooting, five of whom are in critical condition, literally could have been any of us who walk onto the subway each day assuming we will get to our destination. The shooting, along with a recent stabbing at the Wall Street Station — the other end of my commute — and other incidents over the past 12 weeks show us we are not actually safe at all.

We just don’t have any other choice.

News reports say the man’s gun jammed during the shooting, likely saving the lives of many passengers on that fated train. (An additional six people were injured in the rush to escape.) But the man escaped and remained at large as of early Tuesday evening, although a suspect has been identified. It’s all a reminder that a daily routine can turn into a nightmare within split seconds and with no way of preventing it.

Tuesday started like every morning. After several attempts at snoozing my alarm clock, I woke up at around 7 a.m. It was still rainy, and with no set interviews or events on my calendar, I decided to start the day a little late — shhh, don’t tell my editor.

I was absorbing the news of New York’s lieutenant governor, Brian Benjamin, being arrested for campaign-finance fraud when I first saw reports of the shooting on Twitter. Yes, of course, I immediately thanked God I wasn’t on that train. But what if?

What if I hadn’t stayed in bed those extra minutes? What if I had an early meeting at the office? What if there were no trains running at my regular stop in Borough Park and I walked to the 36th Street station instead?

My phone immediately flooded with text messages from friends, locally and abroad, asking If I was OK and safe. Those were followed by calls from Israeli news outlets who know that I speak fluent Hebrew and can speak on their air about anything happening in New York.

But I did not want to be interviewed. I’m a reporter. I immediately got dressed and started the 25-minute walk to the scene. About a block from the station, all I managed to see was a heavy police presence, including not just NYPD officers but those from other local agencies and federal ones.

NYC subway shooting 36th street and 4th avenue in Brooklyn on April 12, 2020

Image by Jacob Kornbluh

It was unclear where the suspect had fled to, what his motives were, and whether footage taken inside the station — since the security cameras were unfortunately broken — would shed further light on the incident. The NYPD only released a phone alert and social media message at 10:57 am — more than two-and-a-half hours after the incident — warning the public to avoid the area.

In a news conference at 12:10 p.m., the governor and police commissioner did not provide any details beyond what was already known to the media: They shared a description of the suspect, and the news that 10 people suffered from gunshot wounds, including five in serious but stable condition. The police also determined that it was not an act of terrorism. They were either clueless or not willing to share what they knew about the nature of this terrifying incident. Was there a political or ideological motive? A more personal protest or psychotic break? A random targeting of civilians or part of a wave of crime that is disrupting life across the city?

What, I, and presumably other reporters, demanded to know: what were the authorities doing to keep New Yorkers safe? With no other way to get to work, with no way of identifying the next offender equipped with a knife or a gun, with no visible police presence in the subway stops I traverse daily, what are we supposed to do?

I am not the only one sounding the alarm and I do not mean to instill more fear in the millions of New Yorkers riding the trains alongside me. But I would be lying to myself if I hadn’t shared my frustration at the lack of public safety measures that would stop the next attack — whether that is a homeless person with mental issues getting into a brawl, an individual with hate motives targeting individuals based on their color of skin or ethnicity, or some other terrorist looking to wreak havoc on the city.

As it happens, I attended an ethnic media roundtable on Friday with Janno Lieber, CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It was one day after a terrorist killed three people at a bar on Tel Aviv’s Diezengoff Street, part of a wave of deadly attacks by Palestinians and Israeli-Arabs over the past two weeks.

And it was just as the NYPD released statistics showing that the city experienced nearly double the number of reported antisemitic hate crimes this March as last, continuing a months-long trend.

With all this in mind, I asked Lieber when the city would implement a public-safety plan that includes the increased presence of police officers in subways stations and on platforms.

His answer wasn’t comforting. “We are asking a lot of the police,” Lieber said. “It may take a while for you to see it, but they are responding.”

Apparently, they were not responding quickly enough.

Gov. Kathy Hochul expressed this frustration at the media briefing on Tuesday in Sunset Park. “We are sick and tired of reading headlines about crime,” she said, “whether they’re mass shootings or the loss of a teenage girl or a 13-year-old. It has to stop.”

Hearing this, I thought of a passage in Psalms 127:1, and recited it to myself: “Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.”

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