Listen to your instincts, except when they want Midnight Funnel Cake

I don’t think 9/11 made us jumpier. I don’t even think it’s the current political zeitgeist that makes us fearful, though I’m sure that doesn’t help. At the end of the day, humans seek self-preservation, and like a less-impressive Incredible Hulk, I think, to some extent, we’re always scared. Scared that someone might swerve out in front of us while we’re jamming down the highway, scared our boss will fire us, scared something will happen to our family, scared of that weird growth that’s probably nothing, but the doctor said “Huh…” instead of “Cancer?! Get out of here!

So the question is, when are you supposed to act on that self-preservation and when do you play it cool? Spoiler alert, when things seem off at a State Fair your freshman year of college, you should listen to that flight response. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

How about that shooting at JFK on Sunday, August 14th, eh? If you didn’t hear about it, it’s because it doesn’t seem like there was one. But something got the entire airport shaken up. I learned about the situation by reading a chilling Medium article, which is not really the place you usually think of to get Breaking National News. But, again, I guess nothing happened. You should read that article first. I’ll wait.

I didn’t save that URL before I closed the tab and tried Googling it when I went to write this entry. Nothing came close. With a few extra keywords, I got 3 measly stories that ranged from “I Was Kinda There” to “People Are Too Scared These Days” to “Good Thing A Shooting Didn’t Happen Because It Would Have Sucked.” You don’t have to read THOSE, but click the video in the last one there, and watch for 5 seconds. That sound ain’t people clapping for Usain Bolt. But, sure, it could have been resultant commotion. A metal pole falling over. I suppose.

So what should we do in our current climate? What are the rules, as a citizen and a Purveyor of Not Making Things Worse? What is more foolish — action over nothing or inaction over something?

I’ll start with that. What’s foolish is when you’re the only girl on your dorm’s hall who owns a car, freshman year of Vanderbilt in 1998, and your very new friends want to do something fun. 9/11 hadn’t happened. Columbine hadn’t even happened. Those were truly the halcyon days.

We didn’t drink, which I mention only because “let’s do something fun” at 9:00 PM is usually a recipe for larger disasters than the one I’m about to tell. We were four sober girls in an unknown city who were literally going to drive until something interesting happened or, you know, we remembered that Denny’s existed.

As luck would have it, there was a Tennessee State Fair not 20 minutes away. Open at night! Ferris Wheels! Our first real taste of being an adult was awesome!

I only remember a few things from that night, 18 years ago. In fact, if it weren’t for the 5 minutes forever crystalized in my mind, I’d probably have forgotten the trip completely. I remember the bright lights making the fairgrounds look surreal, like day under a pitch-dark sky. Buying tickets for rides. My friend telling me she hated roller coasters, me making a snide comment. Funnel cakes.

Then we heard the screams. We stood in a corridor of ripoff carnival games and flipped around at the commotion, our backs to the booths. To our right, a stampede of people barreled down the path, thick as the corridor allowed. Patrons at other booths joined the surging mass, presumably without knowing why. I remember flattening myself as they passed, locking eyes with a few of the people running. They were terrified, confused. It was over as quickly as it started. To our left was more Fair. We didn’t know if everyone had headed straight out an exit or just shrugged and gone on to more merriment, wiggling their fingers at Deep-Fried Twinkies like Homer Simpson.

What we four young women should have done right then was say, “Welp, that’s about it for me,” and headed off to my car beyond the chain-link fence, which I clearly remember was a few dozen yards in front of us. What we did was exchange a glance with each other, say “THAT was weird,” and turn back around to play a carnie game. I don’t remember the person running it. Did they look concerned? Did they want to leave their post, find safety? Did things like this happen all the time?

The next thing I remember, screams again. We flipped around again, backs to the booth. To our left, another — the same? — stampede barreled past. Whatever they’d run to wasn’t any safer than what they’d run from. The danger had run with them or circled around and found them.

What was going on?

I guess second time’s the charm, because the four of us finally looked at each other and unanimously agreed to call it a night. Our ride home was jovial, energetic. “So weird, right?!”

The Internet wasn’t what it is today. If something worse happened later that night that we narrowly missed, we never found out. If we’d been PARTY to the horrible thing that happened, if it had happened right while we stood there, and then again, causing the second stampede, we never found out. It remains one of the great mysteries of my young adulthood. Kids, if a group of people run past you, it’s probably time to head home, just some free advice. In fact, just spend your Friday nights playing video games.

So, when do you act? When do you trust your instincts? The people around you? Authority figures?

On Friday, November 1, 2013, at 9:00 AM, I was at a cafe in Terminal 5 of LAX airport, watching news on the TVs. It was one of those places where you ordered at a 4-foot-high counter and sat on a stool to eat. Tyler had moved across the country, and I was going to surprise him by showing up for a long weekend. Breaking news came on the screen. Live. Shooting at LAX in the security line. LAX is long and thin, meaning no matter what gate you’re at, you’re only a quick jog from security. Maybe they reported that the shooting was at Terminal 3, or maybe it was too early to know. I exchanged a glance with the cafe workers, whose attention was now alternating between the television and the open terminal. We weren’t sure what to do. We didn’t hear any commotion. Were we safe? Was it over?

A manager strolled out of a nearby office without purpose. His attention turned to what we were all looking at, and it took about 30 seconds of listening for him to reach up and turn the channel.

“Um, go back to that?” If I’m ever in the Zombie Apocalypse, I’ll be known as the leader who issues directives as if they were questions. “Um, don’t beat that person’s head in with a baseball bat?”

“No, we don’t need to make a bunch of people hysterical.”

“Well, how do we know if they got him?” I stood up, half deer-in-the-headlights, half-fightin’-stance. “Easy for you guys. You’re protected by this counter.”

The manager shrugged and went back to his work. Safe in his office. The waitresses seemed to shrink a little behind the counter, eyes darting around.

I called Tyler. I was more irritated than fearful, but, you know, just in case. “I just wanted you to know that I was going to surprise you this weekend, and I think I still am if planes can take off, and I’m okay, but there was a shooting at the airport, and if I die, well, I love you, but it’s probably nothing so don’t worry.” I was 90% joking. 85%.

Thinking back to this, the folks at JFK were right to react as they did, in my opinion. Doing nothing because an authority-figure-by-virtue-of-being-on-the-clock tells you to doesn’t sound like a recipe for common sense. But, unlike the folks at JFK (ironically), I had no actual reason to be alarmed.

I’d heard no gunshots. People walking through the terminal weren’t watching TV; they didn’t know what was happening just two buildings away. I didn’t even hear security guards’ radios chattering. I guess Mr. Mana-JERK was right about not being hysterical. What, was I going to dive behind a garbage can, start a panic? But, on the other hand, wasn’t it smart to be cautious and on high alert, just in case?

I think I marched to my gate, eyeing my surroundings like a secret agent, and maybe I took a strategic seat near a large garbage can. We boarded the plane without incident, which is surprising, since airports like to lock down when commotion happens at security, what with people running through without being screened.

I kind of just wanted to take off, but for a fleeting, paranoid minute, I wondered if the shooting hadn’t all been a clever diversion to sneak someone on a plane. MY plane. I checked Twitter for clues.

Again, unlike in JFK, people across the world were tweeting about it. In the trending topic, a comedian friend in New York had a zinger — what up, Matt Little?! News was spreading, because something had actually happened. I had information, and that was a comfort. So here’s what’s weird to me: when something actually happened, why didn’t the pilot say anything about it, or flight attendants, or gate agents? Maybe they didn’t want to cause undue worry, okay, fine. But there had been an actual shooting. Didn’t we deserve to know that it was being taken care of?

The thing that seems off about the Medium article is how the authority-figures-by-virtue-of-being-on-the-clock acted. Groups of people were ordered back into the airport, off the tarmac, three or four times, by Airport Mall Cops who didn’t know if it was indeed safe. And almost every time, another scare sent everyone including security scattering for their lives. No one told them things were okay, but just like the Mana-Jerk, they took control when they had no REAL authority to. It’s easy to say now that it was safe, that they were right to calm people down, and that mass hysteria can and did lead to tramplings. But it could not have been safe, and the two trampling incidents (which turned out to be fine) could have not been the worst outcome of that day. And don’t say the passengers were never told anything by security et al. only because it would have confirmed Something Had Happened, when it hadn’t, because passengers of the 2013 LAX shooting weren’t told anything either. Shrug. Maybe it was need-to-know. We were two buildings away, after all.

As a surprise to no one (15% me), I landed without incident and had a delightful weekend. I didn’t stay away from airports for months, like I did after 9/11. It just was something sad that happened, and we went on with our lives, no more or less safe than we always were.

But I imagine I’d be frustrated if I’d had 90 full minutes of terror, people screaming, diving on the ground, gunmen (good guys, right?) storming the airport walkways, and then no confirmation that everything was fine now, sorry about the alarms and flashing lights. I imagine I’d feel like that scene in the brilliant film “Jupiter Ascending” where Jupiter points out that they can’t just sweep the destruction of Chicago under the rug. People will have questions. And then sexy rollerblading-space-wolf Tatum is all, “Nah, man,” and the city rebuilds itself, all tweets magically disappearing from timelines.

I’m not wearing a tin-foil hat. I don’t think something actually happened at JFK. What I’m against is a society full of Mana-Jerks and Airport Mall Cops who tell you “everything’s fine, don’t freak out” when they don’t know that’s true. It’s a twist on the Cry-Wolf Scenario, where no one lies, but the sheep are told to calm down, there’s no wolf, until there is.

I dunno. Don’t freak out. Don’t trample people. But if something seems off, don’t let a guy who toasts bagels for a living tell you not to hide behind a trash can. You hide behind that trash can. And don’t go to State Fairs in the middle of the night. Your mother would be sick with worry if she knew!

Update: My dear husband did some Sherlocking after I posted this. Just stay home all the time, kids. Nothing wrong with video games.

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