On a brisk December evening in 1993, weary passengers on an eastbound Long Island Railroad train awaited their final stops. As the train approached Garden City’s Merillon Avenue station, gunshots shattered the stillness of the night. Colin Ferguson, a well-born 35-year-old Jamaican immigrant, coolly walked down the car aisle with a Ruger P89 semiautomatic pistol in hand. Turning alternately to the left and right, he methodically shot at fellow passengers as they huddled between their seats. After emptying one magazine, he reloaded another and continued the systematic execution for three harrowing minutes. When he paused to reload a third magazine, three passengers wrestled Ferguson to the floor, but not before six lay dead and another 19 were wounded.
The criminal investigation revealed a delusional mind, obsessed with racism and how it supposedly prevented Ferguson’s success in America. Disdainful, arrogant, and confrontational, Ferguson drifted between jobs that he considered beneath him, charging many with wronging him along the way. He accused professors and peers at Adelphi University of being insufficiently committed to ending racism—which, to him, meant “how to get rid of the white people.”
On the day of the shooting, Ferguson’s pocket contained scraps of notebook paper with the words “Reasons for this” scribbled on top of the first page. The reasons included the purported racism of Adelphi University, police officers, New York governor Mario Cuomo’s staff, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and others. Each of these grievances represented a warning sign of a pending massacre that, with the right police and mental-health intervention, might have been prevented.
Nearly 40 percent of New Yorkers today weren’t yet alive on that fateful December day. Two generations have grown up in a city that has, until relatively recently, experienced ever-lower crime and ever-greater order. Millennial and Gen Z residents don’t know how tenuous life in New York once was. Few would recognize the name Bernhard Goetz; even fewer could imagine living through the chaos of the 1970s, or the more than 2,000 yearly murders that plagued the city in the early 1990s. Even if they don’t know it, thousands of my contemporaries are alive today because of William J. Bratton and Ray Kelly. New York of the twenty-first century remains, in many ways, a city foreign to the one that once was.
On Tuesday morning, that changed. As the northbound N train approached Sunset Park’s 36th Street station platform, an assailant, camouflaged in construction clothing, donned a gas mask, unpinned two smoke canisters, and fired a Glock 33 times in the subway car and on the platform. By the time the smoke cleared, 10 people were shot and 19 others injured by smoke inhalation and the ensuing clamor. The victims included children and expectant mothers.
Yesterday, the NYPD arrested the alleged perpetrator: Frank James, a 62-year-old man with a history of mental illness, a long rap sheet, and a grudge against city services. His criminal record included at least 12 arrests between 1984 and 1998 for theft of services, burglary, criminal sexual activity, and even a terrorism-related charge in New Jersey. Again, these were warning signs. And in an eerily similar yet modernized parallel to Ferguson’s handwritten notes, Frank’s YouTube videos reveal a paranoid and conspiratorial preoccupation with racism. “It’s just a matter of time before these white motherf***ers decide, ‘Hey listen. Enough is enough. These n****** got to go,’” he says in one, before concluding, “And so the message to me is: I should have gotten a gun, and just started shooting motherf***ers.”
A single deranged subway rider with a gun was all it took for the nightmares of a distant past to haunt a city that has since made so much progress. Now passengers—the ones that still ride the subway—will listen not only for the squeal of train wheels but for the crack of a gun. The specter of that smoky subway platform, strewn with the injured, will now invade the minds of people who grew up unfamiliar with such criminality. It will take time to put these thoughts at rest—perhaps lots of time, given that New Yorkers weren’t exactly rushing back to their workplaces before Tuesday.
Worse still, on the same day as the subway attacks, the city’s ongoing carnage continued in the Bronx and Brooklyn, where shootings left three dead and 12 wounded. If brutality continues to dominate what goes on above and below New York’s streets, the city will decline in ways thought impossible only recently.
It shouldn’t have required a mass shooting to reassess how New York goes about public safety, the treatment of severe mental illness, and the tenor of racial discourse. But we should take the opportunity to do so nonetheless. Police and prosecutors must work in tandem to get dangerous individuals off the streets. Those with severe mental illness who pose a threat to public safety must receive the treatment necessary to prevent harms to themselves and others. And we must all work out our differences in a spirit of generosity and goodwill.
Recovery is never a given, yet time and again, New York and its people have proved themselves resilient, whether from the foreign terror of 9/11 or the invisible foe of Covid-19. In this moment, we should recognize some silver linings. All the victims have, by some miracle, survived. Some past tragedies have brought people together and inspired change. In the aftermath of the 1993 LIRR shooting, Gotham made its greatest strides toward safety and order.
New York must now face up to its identity crisis: Which past will it choose?
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images