Last night, reports of an active shooter at LAX caused unprecendented bedlam.
The airport rapidly went into lockdown mode as thousands of petrified passengers spilled out onto the tarmac to escape. Hundreds of flights were delayed, grounded or diverted as authorities searched for the gunman.
I was on one of those flights.
I'd been peacefully sinking from the stratosphere back to the glistening lights of my L.A. home, twenty minutes away from touchdown and the promise of my warm bed, when the pilot made the announcement.
"Ladies and gentlemen. I'm afraid I have some bad news. There seems to have been a shooting incident at LAX. We're getting reports of an active shooter, and we've been told not to land. I'm not quite sure what's going on."
On the ground, "active shooter at LAX" sounds unfortunate, like another distant, yet tragic, casualty of our nation's paralysis on gun control measures or our failure to address mental health.
However, when you're at 35,000 feet, about to land where that active shooter is, reports like this take on a different meaning.
In the air, in a small metal tube, "active shooter at LAX" means "There is something terribly wrong with the airport's ability to keep people safe." It means there is, in all likelihood, a slaughter occurring where you're going.
With this realization, a hot rush of mutual panic jolted down the aisle like a bolt of lightning. Two hundred passenger's adrenal glands squeezed out adrenaline; two hundred hearts increased their rates in furious synchrony; two hundred gulps and gasps were emitted; and the mass prickling of skin ensued.
"We don't have a ton of fuel, so we're gonna have to make an emergency landing and put this thing down wherever we can," the pilot told us.
We'd been diverted to Phoenix, away from whatever was at LAX.
I felt the plane turn at an unnatural angle and the engines roared; a hurried u-turn towards the opposite direction. The words "emergency landing" throbbed in my head as I tried not to think about what was happening to the people in the airport.
Outside the cabin window, the wing dipped down towards the black landscape and I had a gross and uncomfortable feeling I was a small park of some unspeakable tragedy.
On the way to Phoenix, people prayed and held hands in silence for the people at LAX.
More people than that purchased the overpriced onboard WiFi and desperately searched the internet for news of what had happened.
Within the span of a few touch-screen pushes, the entire plane was up on what was going on: shooter, LAX, evacuation, chaos.
When we landed in the place we weren't supposed to land, drenched in stress-sweat, we found out what you probably already know by now: it was all just a false alarm.
There was no shooter. There were no injuries. There was no nothing. "Loud noises" in a terminal had been mistaken for gunshots and a mass panic had ensued and that was it.
We'd been afraid and landed in a different state for no reason.
Yet now, as a result, thousands of people were stranded at LAX. There, they flooded the tarmac, dazed by the brush with death they'd thought they'd had, and shuffled off to negotiate the further excruciation of airline bureaucracy; re-booking tickets, finding bags, securing rides, and hunting for places to sleep off the terror.
When we finally landed at the shooter-free LAX later that night, the airport was in disarray. The terminal was deserted and dead-quiet, and the floor was littered with discarded baggage and personal detritus.
But though we were safe there now and the storm was over, people were still pissed. Passengers shouted lewd things at the flight attendants and airport staff and muttered harshly about the minutia of missed connections and lost baggage. The fake mass shooting became an extraordinary inconvenience for people who didn't realize it was hardly the fault of anyone.
While I waited the two hours for my bag to show up on the carousel, the contagion of fear had turned to that of anger and frustration, and I couldn't help but think about the way people respond to these things as a group; as a single organism overcome by one emotion.
After all, the exact same thing happened at New York's John F. Kennedy airport two weeks ago when a crowd of people who were watching Usain Bolt's legendary 100-meter dash on a TV at an airport bar began clapping and cheering, sounds some passengers mistook for the sound of artillery fire. Shouts of "gun!" and "run!" created multiple, debilitating stampedes that terrorized airport passengers and personnel for hours until officials discovered the source of the commotion was none other than the starting gun Olympic officials in Rio fired at the start of the race.
That both these situations are overreactions and false interpretations of innocuous events doesn't matter. Instead, what's important is the context within which this instantaneous spread of panic from one person to the next is possible.
In our culture, we're so shell-shocked and understandably jumpy from the recent trend of indiscriminate mass shooting and police brutality, that our ability to correctly assess our surroundings is being compromised. Apart from shaving years off our life because of the stress, this seems to be causing a slow breakdown of normal functioning; one where the systems that have always worked for us and the realities that we know to be true aren't so anymore. You think there's a system in place to dispell crowd terror and to safely remove people from an airport, but maybe there's not. You think you know what a gunshot sounds like, but maybe you don't.
You know you know what the craziest thing about that is, though?
These days, nobody even has to get hurt for absolute chaos and hell to ensue. There doesn't even have to be a gun in the mix to create havoc. The mere suggestion of danger is enough to create a malicious form of crowd control and herd behavior, one that's genuinely unnerving.
Whoever's training us to do this — maybe this country's Murderous Gunmen Incorporated — is definitely winning that battle. By capitalizing on fear, a small handful of truly cruel people have antagonized and made dangerous even the most mundane life occurrences — a clap, a crash, a Planned Parenthood checkup, a concert, a night out in Orlando — so that we are constantly afraid, constantly ready to bolt.
Thing is, scared, paranoid people are the easiest to control. They become a herd because suddenly, they're all united by the will to live. Although they come from different places and may share no common experiences, for the duration of whatever terror they're facing, they're all the same.
In that sense, human beings are no different from animals who sense a tornado, earthquake or hurricane and get the hell out of there before it happens.
Just like them, we can smell fear. Especially in crowded places. Without any conscious recognition of what we're smelling, we can pick up on the chemical signaling of others via pheromones released through sweat. All it takes is one person to feel deathly afraid, and a situation like LAX or JFK occurs.
This is what's known as emotional contagion. Herd mentality and the lot.
And what's the most contagious emotion of all? Fear.
This is actually an adaptive measure — think of how many more members of your prehistoric human tribe you could save if they were all alerted to the saber-tooth tiger at once — but in the high-density, hyper-vigilant and paranoid society we live in, our animalistic ability to smell when to panic often creates more harm than good.
Throw in some social context in there — mass shootings and post-911 airplane terrorism — and suddenly, claps start to sound like gunshots. Harmless construction noises start to signal the loss of life.
All this airport havoc and false shooter stuff is a prime situation for a good old fashioned boy-who-cried-wolf scenario to occur, and given human's herd-like behavior and perception for fear, that's what most concerned me as I reflected on the absolute weirdness of the night.
What if this string of false shootings, and those in the future, trains people to think the sound of gunshots are something else? Will this time be the one where there's an actual gunman, or is it just another false alarm? How afraid of this should we be, and should we run when others run?
According to Robert Pedregon, spokesman for the Los Angeles Airport Police, yeah. You should.
Loud noises can be decoys, he explained to QZ. Decoys to say, create a herd of people that are easily picked off, or to create enough chaos that airport security could easily be overwhelmed.
Given the heightened culture of violence that's crept up upon us over the past few years, it won't do you any good to take that lightly. If running out onto the tarmac and missing your flight ends up saving your life when there's an actual gunman, so be it. Always better safe than sorry.
For a brief moment when I got home, exhausted, I considered flying out of a different airport next time.
"Fuck LAX," I thought. "Place is sketchy and I'm too middle aged to die."
But then, I realized something else: the one thing that does not help you in times like these is to change how you live your life. To stay inside and fret and wring your hands over the question of whether you'll be next. Whether you'll be in that airport terminal when you hear "RUN."
You might be.
But to let that fear keep you from traveling, or going to Planned Parenthood, or going to school, or going to a nightclub during pride with your best friends is, to me at least, as good as not being alive at all. After all, life is not about averting death; it's about living life. In the present. Doing what makes you happy and what makes you feel love; like you did something that mattered.
For me, that thing is traveling (when I can afford it). And I sure as shit am not going to shy away from the much cheaper fares at LAX because chaos is such a clear and present event there after all this.
We are absolutely living in time where violence is closer to home than ever before; when a growing number of psychopaths think the the only way to send a message is in blood.
Yes — we should take these threats seriously, but we should also know know that once the havoc and panic is over, we have to get on with living.
So, if you're in an airport —or anywhere — and you hear what you think are gunshots … run with the bulls.
Just don't let that stop you from coming back.