Terrorism

The Night JFK Airport Went Mad

Did the authorities contain a hysterical crowd Sunday night, or did they spread the hysteria?

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Bandai Electronics

It seemed like a major story at first, and then it seemed like one of those news-of-the-weird tales that shuttle through Facebook for a day or two and then get forgotten. Sunday night there were reports of gunshots in two terminals at New York's JFK Airport. Fear swept through the crowds, and the areas were evacuated; eventually it turned out that no one had fired any weapons after all. An odd interlude, made odder by the fact that something similar had happened at a mall in North Carolina the day before, but not the sort of news-dominating event that an actual attack with perps and corpses would have been.

But it was a big story. It was a burst of hysteria that shows our capacity to generate our own terror even in the absence of actual terrorists, especially when the authorities are actively spreading the flames. I recommend reading David Wallace-Wells' vivid account of that night at JFK, and not just because it's a gripping dispatch from a writer who happened to be there when the fear took hold. Decades of sociological research have shown that, no matter how many Hollywood clichés to the contrary you may have seen, it is rare for a disaster to produce a mass panic; spontaneous cooperation and emergent order are the norm. But there is little spontaneous cooperation or emergent order in Wallace-Wells' story—not until the apparent danger has passed:

After that second stampede, out on the tarmac, passengers moved in to comfort and inform each other, as best they could. Those who've lived through real disasters and those who study them often talk about the improvised communities of support that spring up in real time to help. But last night, in a false disaster, it took the complete passing of a threat before that variety of kindness sprang up.

Why? We'll need more than one man's account before we can get anything approaching a full answer to that question. But one theme running through Wallace-Wells' report is that the people policing the airport intervened in heavy-handed ways that made the situation much worse. "Not only did police and security fail to prevent the spectacle of mob hysteria," he writes at one point; "on some level, given the way they pressed a hysterical crowd right back into a compressed space, they staged it."

There is also this:

Some of [the people on the tarmac] had been swept outside by police charging through the terminals with guns drawn, shouting for people to get down, show their hands, and drop their luggage, since nothing was more important than your life. Others had been on lines where TSA agents grabbed their gear and just ran, at least according to reports on Twitter.

And this:

[A]ll of a sudden, all the guards were urging us back inside, not because they knew of any threat out there, but because they were following another protocol: It's illegal for civilians to be out on the tarmac, so we had to get back inside. Not that anyone bothered to explain that logic, or anything else; the best information anyone could give was "active shooter." Probably ten different guards said that to me, and nothing more. Where were their radios, I kept wondering. Why don't they know what to do with us, or at least what to tell us? Surely an airport like JFK would have a contingency plan for a situation like this, which would call for passengers to be taken to a particular place or dealt with in a particular way. If there is such a plan, I saw no evidence of it last night, nor any sign of meaningful or helpful lines of communication between the various parts of the airport operation or the security forces that flooded in after the first reports of gunfire.

And this:

E.C. Segar

Soon [Wallace-Wells' wife] found herself in another stairwell, where there was one guard sobbing hysterically and screaming and another dismissing anyone who turned to him for help or leadership by yelling that he didn't want to die tonight, either. Where I was, there was more variety: A few were responsible-seeming, measured and urging everyone to stay calm; others just yelled at us to back off; and others seemed like stoned teenagers on a summer job, excitedly shouting, "Fuck, a mass shooting!" That they wore yellow vests with the word "security" made them, to the rest of us, the face of authority. But to them, the vest was just a job uniform, enclosing another panicked person in a crisis situation.

The phantom gunshots may have actually been the sounds of travelers clapping and cheering while they watched the Olympics. But whether or not that's how the cascading fear started, the outcome is clear. "For several hours, we were in the flood of panic and chaos of an ongoing act of terror," Wallace-Wells writes. "There's no other way to describe it. That it was an overreaction almost doesn't matter; in fact, that is how terrorism works."

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  1. It’s illegal for civilians to be out on the tarmac, so we had to get back inside.

    And hence a new terror threat popped up, the dedicated enforcer with a gun.

  2. The Port Authority Police Authority Department is incompetent? No way.

    1. Port Authority Police Authority Department

      I hope that’s how they actually refer to themselves.

        1. “The Department of Redundancy Department”

      1. The acronym is PAPA D. Who’s the baddest daddy in the airport? PAPA D, that’s who.

        1. Isn’t that Milo referring to Trump?

  3. It would be awesome if americans were allowed to defend themselves with firearms in public and carry in more places.
    Maybe we all would not be such total and complete pussies all the time if a few country boys were present to hold ground and look for the shooter.

    Terror!!!!!!!!!!

  4. SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING

    Or, just just stir up a giant panic for no reason. Like the person who freaked out because a swarthy middle eastern type person was looking at complicated math formulae on an airplane.

    1. Like the person who freaked out because a swarthy middle eastern type person was looking at complicated math formulae on an airplane.

      Oh please! Any student of history can point to hundreds of episodes where an economist with a pen and a crazy theory has caused millions of dollars of property damage and/or the occasional famine.

      1. *stands to begin thunderous applause*

      2. I suspended my strict lurking policy just so I could comment about how great your comment is.

    2. Yep.

      That person should be sentenced to pass Differential Equations 101.

    3. But it was written with those scary-looking Arabic numerals!

      1. More importantly, he was reportedly writing in a mysterious Arab code known as al jibra.

        This code has terrorized generations of 13-year-old Americans. It is time for it to end, now.

  5. It would be awesome if americans were allowed to defend themselves with firearms in public and carry in more places.
    Maybe we all would not be such total and complete pussies all the time if a few country boys were present to hold ground and look for the shooter.

    Are you kidding? How would the police know who the good guys were?

    1. Because if I was carrying and knew the cops were coming, I would put down my gun. Until then, I could hold my ground.

      1. And if you didn’t see them coming they would shoot you in the back.

        1. True. That’s why I want other people to do it.

  6. New Yorkers get their tough persona simply because of their rough accents and a few gangster movies.

    These are same pussies that were completely paralyzed when a barley category one hurricane hit the city.

    Same goes for the boston strong tough guys who did nothing when the military pointed rifles in their faces looking for one little coward.

    1. Are you kidding, they cheered the cops!

      They weren’t cowering in fear; they were excited to get the boot stamping their face.

    2. barley category one hurricane

      Is that a new beer?

      FWIW, ‘sandy’ had little/no effect on the city. it mostly crushed the jersey shore, far rockaway, and caused one small part of queens to burn down (*it was not missed), but otherwise no one in the city noticed except for the fact that the tunnels were flooded for a couple of days, which made commuting a bitch.

      1. the tunnels were flooded for a couple of days

        The R train was out for six months and the L train is going to be shut down for 18 months next year.

        Yeah Manhattan (“the city”) is mostly protected from such storms but the ocean shores all along Brooklyn and Queens (also “the city” dammit) were wrecked.

        1. I lived in Williamsburg at the time, and i was 2 blocks from the water. There was almost zero impact on the Northside area, but a 2 buildings collapsed south of the bridge.

          The L was down ~4 days or so if i recall. Which didn’t seem much different from how it normally shit-the-bed.

          the L train is going to be shut down for 18 months next year.

          Is this one of those “Leap years”?
          Jeez, really? that’s got to be somewhat inconvenient for lots of people. The JMZ can’t possibly absorb them all

        2. The grey lady says, “2019

          hipsters don’t feel pain like normal human beings. they’re like european soccer-players trying to kick a bad heroin habit. even the thought of walking an extra block makes them lock themselves in the closet and cry.

          My solution (and it may be why i forget how long the L-tunnel was actually out) was to take the L-to-the-G-to-the-7, to grand central. Basically, go north to queens, cross over there. It was longer, duh, but even during the crisis period it wasn’t as crazy crowded as the L was on normal days.

          1. They put it to a vote, IIRC, and 2/3 preferred to keep it closed and bang the project out instead half the line for two 18 month stretches.

            1. bang the project out

              (turns blue with repressed laughter. passes out)

              If they said “18 months”, that means they actually estimated “6 months”, then plugged it into the union-calculator.

          2. 2019

            Yeah, I misremembered some things wrong.

            In addition, it was PATH that was out for 6 months (I took the ferry every day for three times the price – yay) and sometime later the R was shut down for 14 months (gotta love the A train – not).

      2. Category 3 IPA

        To my mind the worst thing about Sandy reporting was the whole AGW has created a wholly unprecedented “superstorm” as though the NYC region had never been hit by a hurricane before.

    3. timbo you seem…awfully concerned about who is or isn’t a pussy.

      1. Aren’t you tired of it?
        It is just so pathetic. Subaru has an entire line of automobiles predicated on the word love.

        It is just so hard to attempt to acquire any form of information without the constant drum beat of wimpy rhetoric and rebutttals from the poor mean people hating armies of social warriors.

        1. *shoves key to the Subie back in pocket*

    4. I’m sure that people overreacted about Sandy. But the rain and tides where the problem, not wind, which is all that the Category rating refers to.

      1. This. Sandy’s damage was almost entirely due to flooding. If not for that then the area would have been out of commission for a day or two like with Irene the previous year.

  7. TSA agents grabbed their gear and just ran

    *That’s* “security”!

    1. Most TSA agents are losers who couldn’t get hired at McDonalds. They love the job because they can order people around and steal shit. But it’s all theater. In the face of any real danger they are guaranteed to run like pussies.

      1. What really pisses me off is those clowns that are getting paid to let contraband through or steal people’s stuff.

        “Up against the ….”

        1. “Are there any TSA agents in the theater tonight?”

          1. “There’s one seizing a joint, and one feeling a crotch! If I had my way…”

      2. They were running to the airport’s Shake Shack.

      3. Most TSA agents are losers who couldn’t get hired at McDonalds.

        That’s an insult to losers who couldn’t get hired at McDonaldss.

    2. “Sir, are you carrying any weapons or explosives with you today?”
      “Yes.”
      “Oh shit.” *agent dashes out of the airport in terror*

  8. Soon [Wallace-Wells’ wife] found herself in another stairwell, where there was one guard sobbing hysterically and screaming and another dismissing anyone who turned to him for help or leadership by yelling that he didn’t want to die tonight, either.

    Protect and Serve

  9. A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”

    1. “No, vegetables are sensual. People are sensuous.”

  10. So what I learn from this is that terrorists that wanted to create major disruptions in American infrastructure don’t even need to carry weapons. Just get a tiny speaker that emits loud noises and you could bring an entire city to its knees.

    1. Exactly. It’s time to BAN MOBILE PHONES!

    2. Or just clap their hands loudly.

    3. They don’t even need to be there!

  11. a burst of hysteria that shows our capacity to generate our own terror

    My cats demonstrate this behavior too.

  12. Has anyone ever seen a herd of sheep and how they behave if one sheep thinks it senses danger? That is essentially what happened here. Fuckin’ herd animals.

    1. I mean, other than the one(s) who initially reported gunshots, can you really blame any of the passengers? I know I would’ve been trying as hard as I could to get the hell out of there (course, that’s pretty much my default airport strategy, but still).

      The guards/agents/officers, on the other hand…

  13. “The Terrifying JFK Airport Shooting that Wasn’t”

    It is terrifying alright, just not in the way the author thinks.

  14. Those pants ain’t gonna to shit themselves, people!

  15. Here’s another fun part of the story, from the comments on Wallace-Wells’ article:

    I was on this same plane from Copenhagen and had the exact same experience. I lost my shoes and my carry on bag which had my passport, phone, cash when I ran out on Tarmac. I returned the next day to retrieve and it was like NOTHING happened at JFK and it was all swept under the rug. No agent, security, bag claim, non existent Norwegian air desk could tell me where my stuff was and I even got some attitude! There were no signs to notify anyone from the night before there looking for their items. Due to my persistence I managed to locate a small cordoned off section on second level to the right with a woman guarding. I saw bags of shoes so I approached. I saw my bag and shoes and she gave them to me no questions asked! Amazing all my items were still there but scary that there was no managed ID and retrieval protocol. There were lots of purses and bags there that anyone could just take. It’s amazing that there was no forethought given or empathy to help us traumatized by the event. I hope that this is a lesson on how unprepared all involved agencies were and that they can ask questions on how they can improve.

  16. “Did the authorities contain a hysterical crowd Sunday night, or did they spread the hysteria?”

    YES!

  17. But, we have to surrender our freedoms so they can keep us safe!

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