After a weekend filled with gunfire, fear is the new normal across America

Lisa Belkin
Chief National Correspondent

Crowds were filing out of Broadway theaters Tuesday evening when a series of loud booms and cracks filled the air. Firecrackers? Gunshots? A terrorist explosion?

At the Shubert Theater, where “To Kill a Mockingbird” was in its final scene, the cast fled to their dressing rooms as the audience screamed and crouched behind upholstered seats. At the Imperial, where the curtain of “Dear Evan Hansen” had only just fallen, the building went on lockdown. At the Hirschfeld, where “Moulin Rouge” had only minutes before received a standing ovation, departing crowds pushed and bumped and cried and ran until everyone around them had stopped running.

There was no shooter. The sound was a backfire from a group of motorcycles on West 45th Street. But the panic, the sense that what they had dreaded was taking place, the shock mixed with an eerie familiarity, was evidence of the new normal in America, where there have been 255 mass shootings so far this year. Two of the deadliest had taken place just the previous weekend.

“It’s like we never thought it would happen but we always thought it could happen, and now it was happening,” said Robin Gorman Newman, a Tony Award-nominated producer who was one of those who found herself running with a crowd after seeing “Moulin Rouge.” “You realize how much life has changed.”

Robin Gorman Newman at the Tony Awards. (Photo courtesy of Robin Gorman Newman)

Fear is not new to America. There have long been streets that are unsafe, and neighborhoods that are at risk of riots, blackout drills and schoolchildren sheltering under their desks. Since 9/11 (or maybe Columbine, or perhaps Oklahoma City), it has been a steady thrum beneath the studied layer of normalcy in the U.S. Concrete barriers here. Shoes off at security checks there. Bans on backpacks.

But this time, in the wake of the massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that fear has felt closer to the surface, ready to flare at a rumor, an unexpected sound, a glimpse of a stranger.

The odds of being killed in a mass shooting within the U.S., whether by a foreign terrorist or a white supremacist, are still small — less than the odds of being struck by lightning. Scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson tried to make this point on the afternoon of the Dayton shooting, tweeting that the 34 people “horrifically lost” that weekend did not compare with the numbers who died in other ways over a typical 48 hours: 500 from medical errors, 300 from the flu, 200 from car accidents, 250 from suicide and 40 from homicide with a handgun.

“Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data,” he wrote.

He was pummeled on social media for the remarks, and he apologized. While the lesson he intended to teach may have been one of respecting data, the one he learned was that the victims of a mass shooting are not only those who have been shot, or even those in their immediate circles, but also the millions whose own feelings of security are dented even from thousands of miles away.

A review of the literature of the psychological impact of mass shootings published in the Journal of Trauma, Violence and Abuse concluded that “such events lead to at least short-term increases in fears and declines in perceived safety.”

When they come at a rate of one or more a day, as they do now (there were 84 mass shootings in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010, a rate of about eight a year, compared with the 255 so far this year), the short term can feel permanent, the trauma unrelenting.

A mourner near the shooting site in El Paso, Texas. (Photo: Wang Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Which is why Elizabeth Wade, a nurse in Portland, Ore., canceled her plans to see “Hamlet” at Shakespeare in the Park at Laurelhurst Park in Portland on Sunday, after reading the morning’s news. She stayed home and watched Netflix instead.

And while Christopher Conner, who directs homeless response in Denver, did go out that day — he took his wife to the Water World theme park in Thornton, Colo., to celebrate her birthday — he stood on line for the Voyage to the Center of the Earth ride and stared out intently at the wooded area beyond the chain-link fence, watching for signs of a shooter, imaging where all the children in the line could run should one appear.

Those who say they factor fear into the calculus of their everyday life can’t always pinpoint the moment when it began. But this weekend made it clear how true it is right now.

They describe avoiding a lengthening list of places — houses of worship, buses and trains, crowded movie theaters.

Tara Egan, a parent coach and former school psychologist from Charlotte, N.C., now insists that her 14-year-old daughter, who has diabetes, take her insulin kit everywhere, even a few steps away to the bathroom at a restaurant, because “what if there is a lockdown and she’s stuck for hours with no sugar or insulin?”

Tara Egan and her 14-year-old daughter. (Photo: courtesy of Tara Egan)

Sarah Imrie, who is raising three sons in Newburyport, Mass., has taken to scouting exits and choosing a meet-up location when they go to places like the mall. “They have to understand this is the world we live in,” she says. “It makes me furious, but I don’t know a better solution.”

New Yorker Andrea Sachs now steers away from the big crowded spectacles that are the quintessential experiences of New York life — like the New York City Marathon or the Fourth of July fireworks on the East River. “The bombings at the Boston Marathon scared the hell out of me,” she says.

Chicagoan Dasha Snyder, for her part, has cut down on the number of protests she attends, out of the same new fear of crowds. “Although I consider myself an activist, I have greatly curtailed my in-person activism,” she says, “choosing to avoid big rallies in favor of phone banking. When the people you are protesting have guns and hate you, looking for cars and concrete walls to dive behind in the event of shots fired really takes a toll on my psyche.”

And Julia Beck, a workplace recruitment and retention consultant in Washington, D.C., has taken to “working from home more often, just because it feels safe.” She shops mostly online, even from stores that are a mere 2 miles from her house in Chevy Chase, Md., so that she doesn’t have to go to the mall. And that was all before her 21-year-old daughter, Lila, was among the employees evacuated from the Gannett Building in McLean, Va., on Wednesday, in response to what turned out to be false reports of an active shooter at USA Today headquarters.

When Lila was younger, her mother would send her out the door with the warning to “make good choices” out in the world, Beck remembers.

“I still say it,” Beck says, even as she recognizes the limitations of that advice, that the dangers in the world “are not their choices. These are not our choices.”

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