When Panic Takes Off

Keep calm with your carry-on.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, on most days simply a bore to pass through, descended into chaos last weekend. Waves of confusion rippled through its terminals when passengers, thinking a terrorist attack was underway, stampeded haphazardly in search of refuge. It was all for nothing.

There was no attack, no "active shooter." Evidently, a crowd watching the Olympics on Sunday night had been cheering, and some mistook the clapping for gunshots and fled. As they did, they knocked over security cordons, which sounded like yet more shots. Soon, the airport was gripped by a cascading panic, with mobs rushing, alarms blaring and rumors spreading.

In this horrifying non-event, many of the errors the U.S. has made in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- 15 years ago next month -- were exemplified.

Start with security. According to a gripping account by David Wallace-Wells in New York magazine, communication from security personnel was essentially nonexistent. No one in uniform could explain what was happening, many were themselves panicking, and crowds were allowed to dash dangerously about the airport without direction. It’s a wonder no one was hurt.

That airport officials were unprepared for such a situation -- after Brussels and Istanbul and Paris and Nice and Dallas and Orlando -- boggles the mind. According to Wallace-Wells, about the only thing security guards did do was order people off the tarmac where they had gathered for safety -- and back into the building where a shooter was rumored to be on the loose. After all, civilians aren’t allowed on the tarmac. It was exactly the kind of exasperating box-checking that’s been a hallmark of security after Sept. 11.

Certainly there are ways to make sure something like this doesn't happen again. Better communication between authorities and the public -- in person, over the intercom, on electronic signs, through social media, all of the above -- is an obvious one. On Wednesday, state and city officials pledged a review of the response.

But that leaves a deeper question: Why was this crowd so susceptible to panic? Anxiety is understandable in such a situation, and in such apprehensive times. But members of the public bear some responsibility for remaining calm -- which is possible, as Wallace-Wells' account shows. Government officials could help by not being so quick to invoke fear over resilience, and to opt for security theater over sensible risk assessment, as they too often have in the past 15 years. Doing so erodes the public's ability to put terrorism in perspective, and to think logically when faced with a threat.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is precisely the point of terrorism: to induce perpetual anxiety, compel costly overreactions, and provoke a liberal society into curtailing its freedoms in the vain hope of perfect security. The answer to this grim dynamic must be vigilance and fortitude, not fear. If the panic at JFK demonstrated anything, it’s that terrorism can succeed even when no one is killed.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.