What It Looks Like When The Terrorists Win: The JFK Stampede Over Fans Cheering For Usain Bolt

from the defeat dept

We’ve talked a great deal here about what a theater of security our national airports have become. Far from accomplishing anything having to do with actually keeping anyone safe, those in charge of our airports have instead decided to engage in the warm fuzzies, attempting to calm an easily-spooked traveling public through bureaucracy and privacy invasion. The hope is that if everyone suffers the right level of inconvenience and humiliation, we’ll all feel safe enough traveling.

But it’s quite easy for the 4th wall in this security theater to be broken by the right sort of circumstance. In case you missed it, one such circumstance happened recently at JFK Airport. The fallout was described in a first-person account in New York Magazine by David Wallace-Wells. Following a long plane ride after a delayed departure, Wallace-Wells describes the start of the ensuing chaos as he and his wife waited to get to passport control:

On the right of the hallway was that familiar line of people-movers, each of them stalled, when suddenly somebody realized that you could lap the line by walking down it like it was a highway shoulder in a traffic jam. Risa turned, smiled, and dashed off to take advantage. I made a show of protesting, hanging back for a second, and then followed her, but probably 50 people had swum into that lane between us in the meantime, and I couldn’t even catch sight of her to roll my eyes. Then the screaming began. I can’t remember what happened first — the flashing light of a fire alarm, the yelled warnings of a bomb and a shooter, the people turning around in a mob panic. I thought I saw smoke. I know I saw bags dropped, people falling to the floor and others stomping past them, through them, on them. Everybody was screaming. And I couldn’t find Risa. See her, really. Because there was no moving in the other direction. There was not even time or space to process what was happening, really. People were shouting about terrorism right next to me, as they ran next to me, but I wasn’t thinking about a shooter; I was just thinking, GO!

He goes on to describe being in the middle of one of several literal stampedes that had broken out throughout the airport, with travelers scattering in many directions and trampling one another. Members of the public were escorted out onto the tarmac, then back inside, then back out onto the tarmac again. Airport security alternatively either bolted for the exits when the scare began, or else were ineptly ushering the public in one direction or another. NYPD officers were inside the airport terminals, clearing them, but nobody seemed to be informing or instructing the public as to what to do. It was, in simple terms, chaos. A woman in a hijab called to her family, and everyone around her panicked. Even the set-pieces of the security theater contributed to the bedlam.

When people started running, a man I met later on the tarmac said, they plowed through the metal poles strung throughout the terminal to organize lines, and the metal clacking on the tile floors sounded like gunfire. Because the clacking was caused by the crowd, wherever you were and however far you’d run already, it was always right around you.

There was a second stampede, I heard some time later, in Terminal 4. I was caught up in two separate ones, genuine stampedes, both in Terminal 1. The first was in the long, narrow, low-ceilinged second-floor hallway approaching customs that was so stuffed with restless passengers that it felt like a cattle call, even before the fire alarm and the screaming and all the contradictory squeals that sent people running and yelling and barreling over each other — as well as the dropped luggage, passports, and crouched panicked women who just wanted to take shelter between their knees and hope for it, or “them,” to pass.

I can only imagine the terror one must feel being caught within a panic inside an airport under these circumstances. As the author notes, it was clear to anyone in the airport that day just how silly the idea is that authorities could respond to a threat at an airport in a methodical and organized way. Part of the lesson of this story is just how useless the security theater we’ve allowed to be propped up before us actually is. Useless as a system for when a terror event actually occurs, but more useless at keeping travelers calm and feeling safe.

Because the cause of this chaos would be laughable if it weren’t so terrifyingly frustrating.

When the first stampede began, my plane had just landed. It started, apparently, with a group of passengers awaiting departure in John F. Kennedy Airport Terminal 8 cheering Usain Bolt’s superhuman 100-meter dash. The applause sounded like gunfire, somehow, or to someone; really, it only takes one. According to some reports, one woman screamed that she saw a gun.

That’s all it took. A spooked public whose fear is unassuaged by the pretend security the government has set up at the airport, mixed with applause for an Olympic athlete, gets you bedlam. This is everyone’s fault, from a public that can’t bother to keep the threat of terrorism in perspective, to politicians that decided on a feel-good show at airports that couldn’t even achieve that goal, to federal agencies keeping everyone so on edge that simple applause rang as gunfire in the minds of some.

It’s hard to think of a more powerful example of how terrorism works than that.

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Comments on “What It Looks Like When The Terrorists Win: The JFK Stampede Over Fans Cheering For Usain Bolt”

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Anonymous Coward says:

You reap what you sow...

I guess this proves that despite 15 years of focus and nearly unlimited funding, the war on terror has not achieved its goal: the public in general is still terrified.

Arguably more so today than 15 years ago.

I’m aware that terrorists are still active, and yes, unfortunately they do at times succeed in attacking airports and other public areas. But I think too much (if not all) effort in that war on terror was focused on making a show of trying to find and stop the next terrorist (mission impossible), and not enough in reassuring the public.

When I’m scared, I don’t want you to tear apart my bedroom and try to find the monster! I want you to acknowledge my fear, reassure me, and help me put things into context and perspective. I want to be informed in an open and rational way about the danger, without exaggerations or hidden agendas, so I can cope with it in my own way.

Instead, what the ‘security theater’ has done is actually reinforce the fears of the public beyond reason: Lots of noise. No perspective. No context. No open and transparent communication.

And I’m worried there may very well be a hidden agenda…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: You reap what you sow...

Indeed. It has allowed them to search through all of our private communications without fear of prosecution! It has allowed them to convince millions that their inalienable rights somehow no longer apply at borders or airports. It has allowed the biggest lies of our age, to be accepted as not only the truth, but a necessary one.

Anonymous Coward says:

Terrorists Win

Now, now, let’s not give the terrorists ALL the credit. The government protects its vested interest in eroding of our civil rights by keeping our “terror levels” high. It’s a heterodyning dance of ever-increasing fear that benefits the terrorists and the government, i.e., the OTHER terrorists (oh, I guess terrorists DO get ALL the credit).

Granite Patriot says:

I'd say it's worked perfectly

Don’t be so naive here. This is EXACTLY the goal of the whole dog and pony show. It’s about power, not security or saving us from terrorism. Our government has been funding terrorism rather openly for about 5 years now, and at least the last 30 years in secret according to declassified documents from the cold war.

The government has been using terrorism to subvert and control other nations, now they are using to control their own people.

Scared people, while hard to control in an moment of panic like this, are never the less, pretty damn easy to control in day to day life, because they are happy to give up all their freedom for the promise of safety. A promise, that is not only empty, but ultimately leads to the very fate the people feared in the first place.

Quiet Lurcker says:

Not an expert on crowds/mobs, by any means, so YMMV.

It sounds to me like someone panicked in the wrong place at the wrong time. That panic spread to other travelers, who also panicked (why, we will never know, but there it seems to be). That panic in turn caught security (insert appropriate snide remark, joke, or comment here) and airport officials entirely flat-footed.

In short, a complete screw-up of great, but not unprecedented proportion. Now, if someone would have had the brains to call ahead that a celebrity was on the flight, and someone else would have had the foresight to think that maybe there could be gawkers, this problem might have been averted.

But, I guess it was too much effort for someone to freaking communicate and think. Or does no one get paid enough for anything like that any more?

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“It sounds to me like someone panicked in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Of course they did. They’ve been conditioned to believe that people are going to try and blow up their plane or shoot them whenever they use an airport. Some people are scared because of that, some people are scared of flying, etc. It doesn’t take much to set them off under the right circumstances. Trained personnel should be there to keep things under control, but a crowd spontaneously panicking without warning is probably a very difficult thing to stop quickly.

The problem isn’t just about the useless security theatre that does nothing to stop threats that actually occurring. It’s the culture of fear that’s been encouraged that manages to help the terrorists “win” without them having to bother doing anything.

“Now, if someone would have had the brains to call ahead that a celebrity was on the flight”

He wasn’t. The noise was apparently in response to Bolt’s race in Rio, not because he was in JFK. That’s what’s especially stupid about this, it was panic over something completely imagined. The cause wasn’t even on the same continent.

Quiet Lurcker says:

Re: Re: Re:

Sorry. Didn’t catch that the clapping was because people saw something on the TV.

Of course, that just makes things that much worse.

Can’t tell the difference between clapping and gun fire points to a severe lack of anything even approximating to common sense. A sad commentary on how people are raised and taught these days.

Won’t tell the difference between clapping and gun fire points to points to someone, somewhere doing something hideously wrong and thereby discouraging that same common sense. A scathing indictment of today’s supposedly security-conscious society.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I flew into O’Hare back during the Shoe Bomber episode. I have to admit, I was extremely nervous. But not because of any potential terrorists.

What had me nervious was the fact that every single checkpoint was surrounded by the National Guard with weapons in ready position. These kids looked like they were 17-19 years old, and looked terrified.

You have terrorists who plan big events for the most media attention. You’re not going to stop them, as they’re planning AROUND the security. They don’t care if some of their operatives are captured (they were going to die anyway) or if the plans have to shift to new targets.

You have terrorists who act out of desperation, who have been brainwashed into thinking they have no other choice. To them, it’s not really terrorism at all; it’s a way to make a public statement that others will actually notice. THESE are almost impossible to stop, because they’re totally random.

Then you have a bunch of scared teenagers with assault weapons and basic training placed in heavily populated international travel hubs. Most of these kids will have never been out of state, so all these foreigners look odd to them. They’ve never had airport screening training. The only thing preventing them from shooting is that nobody has told them to yet.

So WHY is the government AND the popular media so hell-bent on making the situation WORSE?

Just imagine what would have happened at the JFK if the National Guard had happened to be on alert that day. It would have been significantly more than a few stampedes.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

So WHY is the government AND the popular media so hell-bent on making the situation WORSE?

Because a scared person is a stupid person that you can get to agree to things they otherwise wouldn’t so long as you can convince them it needs to be done ‘for their safety’, and because fear-mongering is an easy way to throw together ‘sensational news’ with a minimum amount of effort respectively.

LAquaker says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

When i was 17, two of us were confronted by NG ‘Solder’ in the local park at dusk (city park dawn to dusk, Army Reclamation at night) with his Colt 1911, so close i could have field striped it right there in his childlike face.

Our high school classmate was then 9th in the world in combat pistol, his parents had paid his way to compete in South Africa.

We need 99% fewer guns in our govern-ment, and then only for a few mature adults.
The gas station down the block was yello-taped off at midnight, a white unmarked van and car were working with the lights off at midnight, a bearded guy pulling the tape told me ‘there was a toxic spill’.
When i spoke to the gas station guard (my neighbor) a few days later, he said he had shot a robber that night, and LAPD had sent a crew ahead of the black&whites to ‘organize’ the scene!

Shilling says:

several years ago in the Netherlands at a remembrance of the dead memorial speech of the queen in public, it only took 1 scream from a homeless person to let the panick roar wild. People scattering in all directions wounding 63 people.


The screamer got a 16 month prison sentence from which 8 are probation and a 10000 euro fine. America is not alone.

CrushU (profile) says:


There was an incident two weeks ago at a mall near me where someone thought that something being dropped on the floor was gunfire so it spooked them, and next thing you know the mall’s evacuated and shut down for the day, over *absolutely nothing*. Well done. Well done.

Oh and people got arrested for going up to police and asking to assist them with whatever’s going on.

Thankfully I don’t think anyone got trampled in this incident.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: 'Gunfire'

There was an incident two weeks ago at a mall near me where someone thought that something being dropped on the floor was gunfire so it spooked them, and next thing you know the mall’s evacuated and shut down for the day, over absolutely nothing. Well done. Well done.

And the people in charge probably defended it as the right decision.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Non-existent 'security' meets non-existent 'threat'

And of course the actual terrorists have got to be laughing their asses off at how cowardly and easily spooked the ‘land of the brave’ is these days, thanks almost entirely to years of the government telling the public ‘Be Afraid!’ over and over for personal gain.

Those in the government meanwhile I’m sure are also having a hearty chuckle at how well years of terrifying the public is worked, because terrified people are stupid people, and if you can make someone afraid and position yourself to offer ‘protection’ you can get away with pretty much anything.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Police reviews now suggest Usain Bolt fans clapping were not the source of the panic.

According to the New York Times, the panics nucleated from Terminal 8 which is away from the main Bolt fan crowd. Witnesses continue to insist what they heard was not cheering or applause, but something bangy.

This is from the NYT, and facts are still coming in, so take that for what it’s worth.

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