Amid false airport shooting reports, experts warn against living in fear

Police officers stand guard as passengers wait in line at Terminal 7 in Los Angeles International Airport, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Authorities are still piecing together exactly what led to reports of an active shooter at Los Angeles International Airport on Sunday night, but it became clear soon after several terminals were evacuated that there was never any threat.

Before word of a shooter began spreading through the airport via word-of-mouth and social media around 9 p.m., a man in a Zorro costume with a fake sword was detained outside Terminal 7. Calls to police about gunshots at Terminal 8 minutes later appear to be coincidental.

A ground stop was issued and passengers flooded out onto the tarmac and the road outside the airport while police searched fruitlessly for any evidence of a shooting. Within about two hours, all terminals were reopened, but nearly 300 flights were delayed and travelers faced massive backups trying to get back through security screening.

It was the second false shooting report to cause chaos at a major American airport in the last two weeks. A terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York was evacuated earlier this month after two people mistakenly reported hearing gunshots.

Counterterrorism analyst Anthony Roman, CEO of Roman & Associates, was in JFK’s JetBlue terminal in June when a suspicious package led to an hour-long evacuation there, the day after a fatal bombing at an airport in Turkey.

“As a result of all the attacks that have been occurring recently, particularly at airportsthe passengers that I speak to are more on edge than they have been in the past,” Roman said.

People often ask him if airport security is good enough and what they should do in the event of an emergency. In the evacuation he witnessed and others, he said some things have been done well and others are done poorly.

“I don’t think that passenger evacuation is being done properly or effectively or in the best interest of passenger safety or first responder safety,” he said. He advised that armed personnel should be leading and protecting passengers.

Instead, passengers are sometimes left confused, following each other, unsure what is happening, and congregating in large groups that could put them at further risk. From witness accounts, this appears to have been the case for at least some of the evacuees at LAX Sunday night as well.

According to Roman, attacks and threats in the U.S. and abroad have given passengers good reason to focus on security.

“Everyone describes it to me in casual conversation as, ‘This is the new reality,’” he said.

Panic has also broken out in other public places recently, with people increasingly on edge over the threat of terrorist attacks on soft targets inside the U.S.

A woman suffered minor injuries in the CityPlace plaza in West Palm Beach, Florida as crowds fled a sound resembling gunfire on Saturday night, but no evidence of a shooting was ever found. Reports indicated the sounds may have come from fireworks.

On Thursday, the sound of balloons popping at Joey Fatone’s hot dog shop sparked a stampede in an Orlando mall that left several people injured.

Both of those communities are particularly sensitive to potential threats in the wake of the terrorist attack on an Orlando nightclub that killed 49 people earlier this summer.

“Sometimes there’s an overreaction or imperfect information,” said Dean Alexander, director of the Homeland Security Research Program at Western Illinois University.

Given extensive media coverage of security and terrorism issues and the emphasis on “see something, say something” from the government, he added, those reactions are understandable.

There will be more attempted or successful terrorist attacks and mass shooting incidents in the future, and that will only further heighten public anxiety. If possible, Alexander said, people should allow law enforcement to evaluate a situation before panicking.

However, Dr. Scott J. White, director of the Cybersecurity Program at the George Washington University, said people may not want to wait for an evacuation order after past tragedies like the 9/11 attacks where victims who stayed in the buildings died.

“Today, people are not waiting for an authority figure to actually have them evacuate,” White said. “They’re taking charge of their own lives and making decisions.”

Prior shootings at LAX and recent terrorist attacks at airports in Turkey and Brussels have given the public reason to fear a loud noise in a terminal, but White said it is incumbent on the media, experts, and political leaders to “keep that fear within the confines of reality.”

“People had more chance of getting killed driving to LAX than they probably did from a terrorist attack at LAX,” he said.

That means the terrorists are succeeding in a way.

“I think we also have to go back to the concept of terror itself,” he said. “The whole point of terror is to have an event and then basically threaten more events like that.”

The way to combat that, according to White, is to “control fear by looking at facts.” Even with relatively high-casualty terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando in the last year, the likelihood of being killed by domestic terrorism is still extremely low. The public’s fear should remain proportional to that threat.

“Ultimately a society that lives in fear is a society that has lost the game to terrorism, and Americans are not fearful people,” he said. “It is not a characteristic of Americans to live in fear.”

There are reasons why terrorist attacks instill fear even if they remain statistically rare, though. Unlike many other kinds of violence, it is indiscriminate in nature.

“I can avoid parts of the city where there is gun violence,” White said, but with terrorists more focused on targets of opportunity than symbolic ones, they could target anyone anywhere at any time.

Media coverage also contributes to the undue amplification of the threat.

“There’s a responsibility from our media in conveying a certain amount of truth to this phenomenon We can mislead by creating a hyper-fearful environment or we can be responsible in bringing factual evidence to the people,” he said.

Daniel Antonius, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University at Buffalo who studies terrorism and violence, said information-seeking via the media is natural behavior during a crisis and it can help restore a feeling of normalcy, but it can also magnify anxiety.

“We are processing things at a more rapid pace these days because of news coverage and social media,” said Antonius, co-editor of “The Political Psychology of Terrorism Fears.” “This can of course be problematic when trying to keep up and think rationally about future violent acts.”

Learning more about an attack and the government response to it can help people feel secure from future attacks, but it is not always beneficial.

“The intense media coverage of attacks can also have a negative effect, or a contagion effect, in which people live and relive the attacks when they watch or read stories about them,” he said. “This overexposure can cause increased fear, anxiety, and helplessness, particularly in already psychologically vulnerable populations.”

The lack of a clear-cut solution to the threat of terrorism also contributes to the sense of panic, and it is unlikely to subside soon.

“Gun control, treatment for mental illness, immigration policies are all topics that are hotly discussed, and more resources towards these may help reduce some of the violence, and subsequently the fear,” Antonius said. “But it will take time to change the current national anxiety, or culture of fear.”

White advised looking to communities in Europe and Israel that have struggled with terrorism for decades where people still live their lives comfortably. Their populations do not feel oppressed and democracy continues to flourish.

“One hopes that North America will grow to understand what terrorism is and how to live with it,” he said.

He used the analogy of driving, where the risk of death is far higher than that of terrorism but Americans are conditioned from a young age to be “situationally aware” behind the wheel. Drivers can pay attention to the road while listening to the radio or doing other things without being paralyzed by fear.

Similarly, travelers and shoppers must learn what is and is not normal in their environment and how to respond to unexpected stimuli like a loud noise. If they react proportionally, they can remain in control of the situation.

“We have to be conditioned now to live with this and respond appropriately,” White said of terrorism.

While false reports of shootings can be frustrating and inconvenient for passengers, they might not leave people any less willing to react to the next possible emergency.

"I think everyone realizes the threat is real,” Roman said. “Everyone realizes that there are going to be false alarms. I haven’t observed or heard of anyone that would not respond as quickly to the next potential threat as they have to the previous one.”

Remaining alert in public and knowing what to do in an emergency is necessary, but experts warn against allowing media hype and political rhetoric to warp perception of the danger.

“We have to watch those individuals who peddle fear in our society,” White said. “They’re doing a disservice to us.”

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