Newspaper article International New York Times

False Alarms over Mass Shootings Show a Nation Quick to Fear the Worst

Newspaper article International New York Times

False Alarms over Mass Shootings Show a Nation Quick to Fear the Worst

Article excerpt

False alarms around the country indicate that Americans are primed, when they hear a loud bang or see signs of panic, to think in terms of mass killings.

"It sounded like a stampede of cattle," Donna Melanson said -- 30 to 40 people fleeing, terrified, through Los Angeles International Airport on Sunday night. "Everyone is yelling, 'Shooter, shooter, shooter,' and they start diving under the seats to hide."

Ms. Melanson, 53, a yoga instructor who was waiting to fly home to Miami, grabbed her bag and joined the stampede because, she said, "I couldn't think of why people would be running unless there was a true emergency."

There was not. A loud noise mistaken for gunfire led to rumors that spread at blazing speed in person and on social media, setting off a panic that shut down the airport, as passengers fled terminals and burst through security cordons, and as the police struggled to figure out what was happening and to restore order.

Far from being an isolated episode, it was essentially what had happened on Aug. 13 at a mall in Raleigh, N.C.; on Aug. 14 at Kennedy International Airport in New York; on Aug. 20 at a mall in Michigan; and on Aug. 25 at a mall in Orlando, Fla.

In the wake of terrorist attacks at airports in Brussels and Istanbul -- and against other targets in Paris; San Bernardino, Calif.; Orlando; Nice, France; and elsewhere -- Americans are primed, when they hear a loud bang or screams, or see a crowd break into a run, to think in terms of mass killings and active shooters. Yet crime statistics show that over all, violence in the United States is as low as it has ever been, and experts say the fear far exceeds the risk.

"I would say that we are in the grip of a moral panic," said John Horgan, a professor of global studies and psychology at Georgia State University who specializes in the study of terrorism. "The constant threat perception of being vulnerable to mass violence has seeped into our collective consciousness."

The recent false-alarm panics injured dozens of people, some of them seriously.

Kokila Patel, 66, and her husband, Manu, 74, had just finished lunch at a Panera in the Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh on Aug. 13 when she heard a noise and turned to see panicked shoppers surging toward them. People had taken still-unexplained sounds for gunshots, dived into stores and made a rush for the exits, paying little heed to what was in their way -- including the Patels.

The crowd knocked the couple down and trampled Ms. Patel, breaking her right femur and leaving her to wait in searing pain for two hours until police officers arrived and helped carry her out of the mall. …

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