How Wall Street Learned to Stop Worrying About the Bomb

Before dawn on Friday, Feb. 11, a bomb went off on Wall Street and nobody really cared. The professionals barely flinched, as though an explosion at the epicenter of world capitalism were a weekly occurrence.

The bombing was regarded as a curiosity-another trading-floor practical joke, involving a man with a yellow toolbox, a lit fuse and postal workers running for cover. Kaboom! Only one person was injured, though windows on both sides of Wall Street shattered and the place soon teemed with police. Come daylight, the men and women in offices high above the crime scene had forgotten about it. The reaction, or lack of one, was symptomatic of an era: Nothing can faze this market, or those who trade in it.

“It was 70 yards from our office,” said one day trader. “To get to work, I walked through a phalanx of cops. I walked through it and said, Whatever. I had no idea.” He didn’t ask, either. He got to work minutes before the opening, then traded like a banshee for three hours. On a dreadful day for the blue-chips he did very well, so just past noon he decided to leave and get an early start on the weekend. Walking back through the phalanx, he found out there’d been a little explosion. “I guess I’m glad it wasn’t a real bomb,” he conceded, but mostly he couldn’t care less.

Indeed, investigators were so disdainful of the metal canister packed with black powder that they preferred not to call it a bomb. It was an “explosive device,” a euphemism befitting a neighborhood where years of false alarms in the markets have taught the locals not to take trouble too seriously. An explosive device is a buying opportunity.

“We’re inconvenienced,” one analyst on his way to work told The New York Times , whose headline read, “Bomb Explodes Outside Wall Street Tower, Disrupting Morning Rush.”

“It was probably just a disgruntled analyst or something,” an investment banker snickered to The Financial Times , which devoted just 164 words to the story.

But still: A bomb went off on Wall Street. At the heart of the global marketplace, in a neighborhood swarming with security forces, both uniformed and plainclothed, some guy got away with lighting an actual fuse. A man was seen bent over the device, like Wile E. Coyote. Then he disappeared, in his Carhardt jacket, carrying his yellow toolbox. The authorities haven’t caught him yet. (Chances are he ditched the toolbox.) They just know that he was probably disgruntled. Somehow, this did not seem to strike much fear into the hearts of the people who congregate down there for work every day.

Wall Street showed itself to be not only extremely vulnerable, but also dismissive of an apt little piece of symbolism. The bomb went off on the last day of one of worst-and weirdest-weeks in recent years. Despite the covers on those magazines on the newsstand, trumpeting the long-running bull market (“The Boom,” crowed Business Week ; “The Hottest Market Ever,” said Money ), it had been an ominous few days: Internet hackers, a trickster Treasury Department, an inverted yield curve, a plunging Dow. Now there was this little taste of anarchy-a pipe bomb before dawn. In a less complacent world, it might have signaled a shift in the spirit of the times, the onset of some new grimy collapse.

Bombings used to really mean something downtown. The worst came in 1920, at J.P. Morgan & Company’s headquarters. The explosion killed 40 people. Investigators ultimately concluded that anarchists were responsible, but they never caught any.

In 1975, the Puerto Rican Armed Forces of National Liberation, or F.A.L.N., blew up Fraunces Tavern, on Broad Street, and damaged the Anglers’ Club upstairs, killing four. In 1982, the F.A.L.N. set off a series of bombs at Merrill Lynch & Company, the New York Stock Exchange, the American Stock Exchange and Chase Manhattan Bank, but no one was killed.

On Feb. 11, the bombing was apparently as apolitical as it was inconsequential. Wall Street yawned. No blood, no foul. The players in this market have grown adept at dismissing bad and strange things as mere bumps on the way to more prosperity. They shrugged it off in 1997, when a similar bomb went off at 222 Broadway, at a building owned by Merrill Lynch. It happened just as the city was conducting a massive anti-terrorism drill up the street. That disquieting fact was not enough to prick the feeling of invincibility pervading the southern tip of Manhattan.

Nor was this latest little boom.