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.