Land of the Free And Home of the Jittery

A false alarm at Los Angeles International Airport on Sunday evening triggered panic among passengers in the crowded terminal. Word-of-mouth and social media quickly spread the rumor of an active shooter and some people began to run and shout frantically as security personnel swept into the terminal with assault weapons.

Fortunately, there was no gunman, and no one was hurt in the mayhem. Police said the rumor may have been started by some loud noises that someone thought were gunshots.

It was not an isolated incident. Two weeks ago at JFK Airport in New York, chaos broke out in another false alarm. That too, appeared to have been precipitated by loud noises, from a raucous celebration at the airport. About a month before that, a bomb scare at JFK was the result of someone noticing a bomb-sniffing dog being drawn to an unattended bag.

The reaction of security personnel did not seem much better.

Anthony Roman, who runs a security consulting firm in New York, was outraged at the failure to provide travelers with proper guidance in the critical moments:

“Letting hundreds of people loose onto an active tarmac, an environment they’re absolutely unfamiliar with, and allow[ing] them to go on open roadways while traffic is still moving, is obscene,” said Roman.

Henry Willis, director of the RAND Homeland Security and Defense Center, concurred: “I think that when I look at these events, it has to be recognized as a public safety failure,” Willis said.

Officials acknowledge the problem — they can hardly hide it — and say they are looking at ways to improve security response.

There is no doubt that Americans are jittery, and that panic is just below the surface at almost any public venue these days. People can be stampeded by a loud noise or the first suggestion of trouble.

Obviously, this is not good. But people have reason to be anxious. Every day brings news of another horrible terrorist attack from somewhere in the world. The possibility of an armed fanatic loose at an airport is by no means far-fetched, and the natural reaction is to get out of the way in a hurry.

But panic is itself dangerous, aside from playing into the hands of terrorists who welcome the disruption of public order as a victory for their side.

The Homeland Security Department’s finding in June 2015 that in 67 out of 70 tests across the nation, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners failed to find mock weapons and explosives is not a statistic that inspires confidence. Nor are we aware of any more encouraging findings since then.

The requirement to arrive for flights two hours and more before departure, and with delays on top of that, also contribute to frayed nerves and overreaction. While many delays are caused by technical malfunction or weather conditions, the TSA system is a regularly contributing factor. TSA delays have caused more than 70,000 passengers to miss their flights so far this year, according to the American Airlines Group.

One solution to the problem is to replace the TSA screeners. Airport authorities are considering just that, and the law allows them to replace the federal agency with private contractors. San Francisco International and 16 smaller airports have private screeners; Seattle Tacoma International and others are examining the option.

However, there is no clear evidence that private companies will make a great difference, and the airports are not rushing to make the switch.

On the other hand, there is evidence that the TSA will do better in the near future. Responding to complaints about wait times, the TSA mounted a special effort last Memorial Day weekend, which was credited with keeping traffic moving at a reasonable rate. Although long waits were reported at some small airports, the situation at the “Big Seven” was under control. The longest wait recorded was 65 minutes at O’Hare when an X-ray machine conked out.

The feat was accomplished mostly by shifting resources. Screeners were transferred from smaller cities to big airports, part-time employees were made full time and ample overtime pay was granted. The biggest innovation, though, was said to be the creation of a TSA command center in Washington, D.C. to monitor the situation and deploy supplementary staff as needed.

Gary Rasicot, TSA’s chief of operations, noted that the Memorial Day operation was a temporary fix, a “mitigation plan, not a resolution plan.” But he looks forward to long-term improvements made possible by automated screening lanes and — if Congress will pay for it — the hiring of more staff.

Meanwhile, there are no utopian solutions. Until Moshiach will come, may it be speedily in our days, we are likely to continue to live in a world of threats, delays and appalling violence.

While these are factors beyond our control, public reaction to them, and behavior in an emergency, are not. Perhaps the airport authorities could distribute cards to passengers prior to boarding with a few simple guidelines for how to act during a security alert.

Such a protocol might begin with the admonition that just as no person has a right to cry “Fire!” in a crowded theater, no person has a right to cry “active shooter” in a crowded terminal. To do so is to actively endanger the lives of others.

Furthermore, we should all bear in mind that when such a rumor does fly, it is likely no more than that: a false alarm. Not a reason for panic.

And even if it’s true, it doesn’t mean that the shooter is in your vicinity, or that by the time the message reaches you he hasn’t already been neutralized. Again, no reason for panic.

Finally, we must always bear in mind that whatever happens, it is in the hands of the Borei Olam. And that’s the ultimate reason not to panic.