I'm pretty jumpy these days. I twitch at the bang of a can being dropped in the grocery store. I find myself listening when I pass by schools for reassurance that the ruckus is coming from recess, not fear. I've become familiar with the anxious squeeze of claustrophobia in my chest at concerts, and shakily aware of the fact that I scope out the nearest exits when I'm at crowded events indoors. All this might sound like paranoia, but as I've written before, living with the perpetual fear of a mass shooting has riddled the American psyche.
Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than the strange and dark side effect of "phantom shootings," which can be experienced both individually or in the contagious hysteria of a crowd, and might be triggered by something as seemingly innocuous as a boisterous celebration at a bar. Phantom shootings aren't going away, either. If we as a nation are going to be resigned to mass shootings as a fact of American life, then we must also resign ourselves to their victimless, but nevertheless terrifying, cousin: the false alarm.
On Tuesday night, after a weekend that saw more than two dozen people die in mass shootings, the not-at-all-uncommon sound of a motorcycle backfiring in midtown Manhattan sent hundreds of people in Times Square into a mad, illogical dash for cover. People pounded on the doors of nearby Broadway theaters begging to be let in while the audience and cast members inside sheltered in place. "This is the world we live in," tweeted actor Gideon Glick, whose performance of To Kill a Mockingbird was disrupted by the false alarm. "This cannot be our world."
"I thought I was going to watch my daughter get shot down in front of me," a witness said of last night's scare at Times Square. Police say loud noise from a motorcycle backfiring spooked the crowd. https://t.co/pxxwGIG8np pic.twitter.com/8KBfMKoiO1
— NBC New York (@NBCNewYork) August 7, 2019
Stories of shooting false alarms have become distressingly common, and stretch across states, venues, and age groups. When a gun was spotted in the hand of a shopper at a Louisiana Walmart on Tuesday, just three days after the attack at an El Paso Walmart, terror naturally erupted. "Panicked customers were running from the front and rear entrances to the store, and told initial responding deputies that they could hear 'popping' sounds that they believed to be gunshots,” East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux told the New York Post. Upon investigation by the police, it turned out that no rounds had actually been fired. The "gunshots" heard by customers were entirely imagined. The same day, a sign falling over at a Utah mall prompted someone to yell "shots"; the whole building was evacuated.
False alarms aren't a new phenomenon, either. In 2016, it took three hours to restore calm at John F. Kennedy Airport after a celebration at a sports bar was mistaken for gunfire. "For several hours, we were in the flood of panic and chaos of an ongoing act of terror. There's no other way to describe it," wrote New York's David Wallace-Wells. "That it was an overreaction almost doesn't matter; in fact, that is how terrorism works." And in 2012, in the weeks after the massacre in Aurora, Colorado, movie theaters around the country were evacuated not infrequently for assorted false alarms.
The prevalence of phantom shootings is indicative of an entire country's post-traumatic stress disorder, a state in which our minds are collectively just one pop, bang, or misinterpreted shout away from full-on panic. While the false alarms are far more welcome than actual shootings, they nevertheless present dangers themselves: A "loud noise resembling gunfire" at a Central Park festival last year resulted in 15 people suffering injuries in the subsequent stampede to get away, Gothamist reports. "I just had the [worst] panic attack of my life at Global Citizen Fest," one attendee tweeted. With gun rights advocates' ludicrous calls for arming civilians as a means of combating, literally, future mass shootings, I fear it is only a matter of time before an innocent person is hurt by well-meaning friendly fire in the chaos stemming from a phantom event.
Part of the danger comes from the fact there really isn't a great way to prepare to respond to a mass shooting. Unlike protecting yourself from fire, which involves easy instructions we were taught at a young age (stop, drop, and roll), most Americans have only recently begun to consider what they'd do in a shooting. Were there to be a widely understood and useful protocol for how to act, it might help mitigate mass panic and curb false alarms. But because of the horrific economy of the weapons used in shooting attacks, which can kill nine people in 30 seconds, it is hard for anyone to remember, much less implement, a strategic response plan beyond the raw terror that says get away, get away.
False alarms won't stop until the entire apparatus that allows American mass shootings to persist is finally dismantled. Until then, phantom scares will multiply as a powerful and sickening symptom of the domestic terrorism we remain powerless, or unwilling, to end.
Even as I was writing this piece, the USA Today headquarters in Virginia was being evacuated after reports of a man with a weapon entering the building. After a massive police response, USA Today confirmed that the building had been searched and there was "no indication of a shooting or a shooter."
All the fear, the paper said, had stemmed from a "mistaken report."