ThanksZack, the Subway Shooting, and the Internet’s New Hero

ThanksZack, the Subway Shooting, and the Internet’s New Hero

The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.

For many New Yorkers, the last week has been intense and crushing. Early Tuesday morning, as many in the city were commuting to work, someone opened fire on a subway train, injuring at least 23 people. In the hours after, everyone anxiously awaited the identification and apprehension of the person, or persons, responsible. That evening, the New York City Police Department identified a “person of interest,” and on Wednesday afternoon, they arrested Frank R. James in the East Village. Then, a hero emerged: Zack Tahhan, a 21-year-old man from Syria who stepped forward to say he was the one who pointed James out to police.

Not long after James’ arrest, Tahhan held an impromptu press conference on the sidewalk, telling reporters, “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is the guy, we need to get him,’” before flagging down a cop car and pointing out the suspect. Tahhan, and the smartphone-video interviews he gave, were soon all over social media, particularly Twitter. After 30-plus hours of uncertainty, and news about malfunctioning security cameras at the scene of the shooting, the internet had found a hero. “This *IS* the true heart of NYC,” tweeted one. “Let it be known this man who has sold me Juul pods many times was more effective in catching the Brooklyn shooter than the entire NYPD!” wrote another. Soon enough, #ThankYouZack was trending.

It was one of those moments when the very format of social media allowed folks to lionize someone when they were most in need of a hero. Despite the spotlight on Tahhan, it remains unclear whose tip actually led to James’ apprehension—two other citizens claim to have played a role, and its possible he reported himself—but even so, after a day and a half of uncertainty, most people seemed thrilled to be able to believe in humanity again. Often, being Twitter’s “main character” is a bad thing—remember Bean Dad?—but for a while on Wednesday, Tahhan was the kind of protagonist that Twitter’s birds flock to gleefully.

In some ways, Tahhan’s newfound fame turned the Brooklyn subway shooting into a tale of two internets. In reality, the internet is a multiverse, but for the sake of this argument, let’s stick with these two: On the one hand, you have James, who prior to his arrest, reportedly posted a string of bigoted videos on YouTube. On the other, you have Tahhan, who became a hero because social media allowed people to share his story in a way traditional press conferences from the NYPD could not. The internet can be full of hateful rhetoric; it can also be a place where folks will remind you, as one Twitter user did, “We mention Islam at every opportunity when it’s attached to a negative event. How about we mention it when it comes in the form of a Muslim hero that helped a treasured American city stay a little safer?” (In one video, Tahhan mentioned that he had been fasting for Ramadan.)

As of this writing, James faces federal terrorism charges. At least 23 people were injured in Tuesday morning’s shooting, but somewhat miraculously, none of them died. In some ways, New York, as the Times wrote this week, was “spared.” The city also, through Tahhan, got to celebrate its local heroes on Twitter—all while Elon Musk was trying to buy it out from under them.