Paris, Brussels, Lahore, Ankara and all the other cities where bombs or shootings have ripped through airports and train stations and parks where children and their families gather: These are the places and images that flashed through my mind when, suddenly, a normal moment morphed into an emergency response to an immediate threat. Normally, I would make a selfish joke about my bad karma about being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but these aren't normal times and, since I escaped any harm, I'm just counting my luck, if not blessings.
Soon after arriving at Miami International Airport on Monday, March 28, me and my family were in Terminal H, waiting for our Delta flight home to New York. We were half an hour from boarding and were sitting near the gate when, suddenly, a thundering commotion could be heard. A pack of people came running down the terminal. My partner and I looked at each other in that instant and wondered: It must be a group running to make a connection. Were they laughing? We could see high emotion but it wasn't clear -- until the blue-shirted TSA agents started shouting: "Everyone run, let's go!" It took a second or two, which seemed longer, for it to sink in. What was happening in the terminal was now cause for everyone to get up and run for an exit.
This was the second time in the past three months that I've been in this situation. A day before Christmas, I stopped at Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island to pick up a last-minute gift for our daughter. The mall is, once or twice a year, a necessary evil and I planned to be in there for less than 15 minutes. Five minutes into my shopping run, I had a few shirts draped over my arm as I hastily perused some pajamas. Then I noticed out of the corner of my eye a line of people running for the exit. That's weird, I thought. Maybe they're going to catch a bus or something. It didn't make sense, but in that split second, it didn't effect me, so I continued what I was doing. Then people kept coming down the aisle, running faster in thicker clumps on all sides of me and now they were shouting. Something about a shooting, that there was an active shooter in the mall.
In both the mall shooting and the airport evacuation, there came a strangely time-distorted period of time -- a second, two seconds or three -- that it took for my ears and eyes to transmit to my brain that the normally routine activity of shopping or waiting for a plane was turning into situation that demanded an immediate shift to reaction mode. And not just any reaction, but a response to what was in reality, or being perceived as, an immediate danger. In both these instances, the most surreal sensation was how the animal reaction to flee when faced with out-of-the-blue circumstances and events had to win a fast battle over the mindset that public spaces in this rambunctious, consumer-based, free-traveling society are here for our use and pleasure.
In the case of the Roosevelt Mall shooting, the seemingly slow realization that I had to get out of the mall saw me turning my head several times as people flew by me and grew increasingly louder and more panicked in their call for everyone to run. I remember having time to wonder what I should do with all the specific shirts I had picked out and was almost ready to go pay for. Do I put them down in a place I can find them for when I can get back in? That was weird, but I was still thinking: I made this effort to get here and I "needed" these last-minute Christmas gifts to make sure there was enough under the tree for our teenage daughter. Then, getting closer to finally reacting, I wondered: Should I just run out with the clothes, not to steal them but just to have them all in one place so I could pay later but not leave empty handed. Again. Weird. Finally, after clicking through options, I transitioned from American Mother Shopping At The Last Minute In A Big American Shopping Mall i.e. What Is More Normal Than That to ... a potential victim that needed to get the hell out of dodge. Finally, I ran for the exit and, as I got to the door, I just heaved all the clothes near the register and ran out into the parking lot.
Hundreds of other people were flooding the parking lot , too. Police cars and emergency vehicles came screaming in from all angles. People on cell phones were confused, crying, scared. There had been shots: I heard one as I ran for the door. If a terrorist attack was taking place in one of New York's biggest symbols of American consumerism, no one would be surprised. Yet, it was still a shocking feeling to suddenly identify with other people around the world who face this kind of threat, who have to be prepared at any given second to switch from citizen doing normal, daily tasks to part of a pack of people targeted by madmen and terrorists. The hair-trigger response by law enforcement was reassuring, yet also an alarming realization that, at any given moment, our normal lives can be ruptured by violence. It takes another few seconds for the mind to go from fright/flight mode to wondering what ends are the perpetrators seeking to achieve? The active shooter, it turned out, was a burglary gone bad. So the threat of gunmen mowing down dozens of people to make some twisted point turned out to be non-existent, though that was the image I took with me as I ran out to the mall parking lot. Did the dark fight of Jihadist terrorists come back to New York? Was this the time and place where, like 9/11, we were going to be brutalized by a war that will never be won?
At the Miami Airport yesterday, that same strange transition took place. After hearing the TSA agents shouting for everyone to run, I stood bolt upright and looked around, seeing that the terminal was now the scene of a mass evacuation. Some people shouted "What's going on?" to try and help summon the reason to jerk from gate-waiting somnambulance to action. I looked at my partner, made sure my daughter was right next to me, and we grabbed at our small suitcases. Scrambling, deciding, adrenaline kicking in so hard my stomach muscles flooded with tense buzzing, the three of us started running wildly down the terminal until, about 100 yards down, short of breath and wondering what good it was going to do to run wildly, I told my partner and daughter to slow down. We can't outrun a bomb, if that's what they're talking about, especially if we wind up making a rash move or get caught up in a stampede. "We're going to go at a good pace, together, and not panic,'' was our decision. We kept moving fast, and instead of being shoved into an elevator, we decided on a wide stairwell to take us down and out to the tarmac, where emergency and police vehicles were flying in from all over the airport runways and terminals.
Was it unattended luggage that spooked someone? Was it TSA agents seeing something on an x-ray scan that alarmed them? We heard different things as we waited in the thick Miami humidity, the heavy fragrance of jet fuel hovering over us. People were on their phones. Some were crying. It was certainly surreal, but after about 15 minutes, the situation seemed to be no longer a threat. Police and airport security were not boosting their response, but preparing to get us back inside. We never found out exactly what set this evacuation in motion, even as we stood back outside the terminal and had to be processed through security again. By then, the visceral images of Brussels or Lahore had dissipated, then vanished. We were not facing that today, after all. We were facing air traffic delays due to high winds into LaGuardia Airport, the place politicians call a Third World airport when, in the news, Americans disagree about how to tax and spend money and lift our society forward. Everything was back to normal, though, not really. One day, the ending may not be so good. I'm not sure if the threat of something horrific happening will, right now, shatter my sense of freedom and use of public spaces. We're creatures of habit. We want to move around, buy things, see places. We surrender or suspend certain feelings in favor of other, more immediate needs and desires. I will say, though, that the second time I had to run in fear of something horrible going down, I recognized a strangely now more familiar, sinking feeling of fear and sadness and sobriety about the world we're living in. More to the point, will my 17-year-old daughter factor this threat into decisions she makes? There's no amount of usual assurances that can take back that alarm and fright and rush of almost crippling adrenaline. It starts to get coded into your psyche, even when the threat was shown this time to have been a false alarm.
Is a former political and sports columnist who worked great cities like Albany NY, Seattle, Baltimore and Harrisburg PA. She lives New York.