The smell of hot apple cider wafted into the crisp night air from Booth A42 at the Union Square Holiday Market in Manhattan.
“GERMAN DELIGHTS,” read the sign.
Below that, it said, “There’s a little German in everyone.”
The woman behind the counter, 24-year-old Sabine Edelburg of Bremen, was assisting a young man who was making a purchase.
“Really good gingerbread,” she said. “Is it a gift for someone?”
“Yes,” the young man said.
“You need a plastic bag?”
“No, thank you.”
He turned away and a second young man appeared from the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of shoppers.
“Apple cider, please,” he said.
He reached out to take a bar of Mozart chocolate as well.
“I love that chocolate,” he said,
“There are only four left,” Edelburg said. “It’s very delicious.”
An East Asian man stopped on seeing the sign announcing that the booth also offered a drink called Gluehwein.
“We tried it once,” he said. “It was delicious. One Gluehwein, please!”
“I’m sorry, we have no more,” Edelburg told him. “It’s run out. Next season.”
He settled for a cider and rejoined the shoppers flowing bright eyed amid the festive stalls and decorative lights, all seeming to be the stuff of some Yuletime imagining. He then passed five police officers from the NYPD’s Critical Response Command (CRC), who stood in helmets and body armor, holding automatic weapons.
“They have assault rifles!” a woman was saying as she went by.
She may have been coming from a low-key, post-election demonstration on the other side of the square, where a small number of protesters were singing “This Little Light of Mine” and holding signs supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and opposing misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia, as well as police surveillance of Muslim communities.
“You know why we’re out here, right?” one of the CRC cops asked her. “Because of Berlin.”
The cop was referring to the terror attack in Berlin in which a fanatic had driven a tractor trailer into a holiday market very much like this one in New York, killing 12. German authorities were conducting a manhunt for a Tunisian citizen named Anis Amris, who was on that country’s terrorist watch list and subject to surveillance and would have been deported had his country of origin not refused to accept him. He turns 24 on Thursday, meaning he had been just 8 years old when the 9/11 attacks signaled the start of a war that seems to have no end.
“If nothing ever happens and nobody needs us, we couldn’t be happier,” the CRC cop in New York now said.
He added, “But, if something does happen and we’re not here, they’ll be saying, ‘Where were they?’”
A sixth CRC cop had been over by a line of police vehicles, donning his gear. He joined his comrades, making it a half dozen who continued the vigil. Other CRC teams were at other holiday markets in Manhattan, as well by the big Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center and in Times Square. They were keeping a particular eye out for the latest threat.
Fifteen Christmases after 9/11, terrorists have gone from hijacking airliners to hijacking trucks. A truck may not kill enough people to start a war, but it can keep one going and there is no security screening to prevent a fanatic from getting behind the wheel, no piloting lessons needed to drive it. Any one of the thousands of trucks that rumble through the New York streets could have just veered into a holiday crowd.
Down at Union Square, a man climbed into a white refrigerator truck 50 feet from where the six CRC cops stood. The engine roared to life and the lights came on, and there was a grinding of the gears as it lurched into motion. The driver would have needed only to press the accelerator to the floor and even these half dozen heavily armed and highly trained cops might not have been able to stop him from splintering a whole row of booths. He would have been repeating the Berlin horror with a terrible irony by crushing the German Delights stand.
But the truck just rolled uneventfully down to West 14th Street. And back by German Delights, there was no sign that Edelburg or her customers felt even a shiver of the terror that the terrorists seek to instill in all of us in every country.
Yet the danger was out there and, along with the CRC cops and their uniformed comrades, we are protected by legions of plainclothes detectives and agents. A considerable number of them in New York have been working through these past 15 years with barely a break. They are all too conscious of the threat, and one longtime counter-terror cop was saying on Wednesday that he finds himself standing behind a barrier if one is handy when he is waiting to cross the street.
“You pretty much become a tactical walker, see what’s gonna buy you a couple of minutes’ extra time to get out of the way,” he said.
At the prospect of his teenaged kids venturing to holiday spots that are potential targets, he is faced with instilling a due measure of caution without ruining their fun, urging situational awareness along with holiday cheer.
“Instead of, ‘Yeah, when I was your age, I had a great time,’ now it’s, ‘If you’re going to see the tree, make sure you’re looking around, make sure you’re aware of those around you,’“ he reported.
His hope is to maximize safety while minimizing the impact the terrorists have on holiday moments that should be a person’s brightest memories.
“Those memories are things that make us what we are… [the terrorists] are chipping away at them,” he said.
Back at the German Delights booth, another young man had stepped up to order an apple cider.
“lt’s natural and only apples,” Edelburg told him. “Very delicious and hot. Enjoy!”
He continued on. Edelburg told the Daly Beast that in four days she would be heading home to Bremen, arriving just in time for Christmas.
“Family,” she said.
Hopefully, the German authorities will by then have arrested the fanatic who drove the terror truck into the holiday market in Berlin. The holiday market in Union Square will continue to be guarded by CRC cops such as the six on duty there on Wednesday night.
The cop who had spoken to the woman about Berlin is barrel-chested and rosy-cheeked, and his eyes are not unmerry. With a big white beard and without the helmet, body armor, automatic weapon, and extra magazines, he would have made an excellent Saint Nick.
As it was, he was a Santa’s helper for our time, one of those who seek to get us safely to Christmas morning and beyond.
“Merry Christmas!” he said.