I get scared on the street easily. In 2015, I worked as a freelance reporter in Ukraine, which occasionally required trips out to the front line to cover the war between that country’s government and Russian-backed separatists, something my coworkers are probably sick of hearing about. I wasn’t exposed to too much of the fighting, but saw enough that when I got back to New York in early 2016 I noticed that my startle response was way, way more sensitive than most of my friends. A couple times a day I’d get spooked by a garbage truck banging a can, a sudden siren, or a poorly muffled car engine, which would make me half-crouch wherever I was and start looking for something to hide behind. I felt embarrassed and stupid whenever it happened, like I was being overly dramatic just because I’d spent a few days in vague proximity to violence, but still couldn’t control how my body reacted.
It’s weird, now, to see this response becoming a new normal. On Tuesday night, a motorcycle backfired in Times Square and set off a stampede, with crowds of people ducking for cover. It’s utterly surreal to watch, because you know there is only one thing all of these people are thinking: that they are about to be shot.
The herd dynamics of a crowd of people aren’t new—if one person starts running, others are likely to follow. But it’s hard to imagine that the current climate of creeping dread and baseline anxiety over public massacres isn’t contributing to the severity of this experience, to the level of immediate fear that all of these people clearly felt.
This happened, per NBC News, no less than three times on Tuesday: once in Times Square, which you can see above, and twice more at a Louisiana Walmart and at a Utah mall. Communities of color have been dealing with this for decades, suffering not only from the immediate trauma of gun violence but from rampant post traumatic stress disorder as well. Mass shootings have brought this anxiety to the general public, the violence no longer contained to neglected communities.
My friends talk about it too. A couple months ago, a buddy of mine was at the movies when there was some altercation between two guys in the row in front of him. The spat wasn’t much—some raised voices and shoving, but he said when the two men stood up suddenly, yelling, he had a moment of sheer panic that this was Aurora, CO, all over again. It’s now possible to go through pretty much your entire day jumping from the site of one mass shooting to another: go to a church or synagogue, stop by Walmart, catch a movie in afternoon, maybe go out to a bar afterwards. These are all places people have been gunned down en masse. I went to a tiny public school in an extremely rural area where someone forgetting to take their gun out of their truck from the weekend wouldn’t have been a surprise. It was a decade after Columbine, but we didn’t think too much about the possibility of someone shooting up the place then. I’m sure every student there now is hyper-aware of that possibility.
This anxiety can go away, over time. I haven’t been anywhere near a front line in years (besides the Splinter comments section), and while I’m still not a huge fan of garbage trucks or fireworks, I’ve mostly got my reactions to sudden noise under control. Americans deserve to live in a country where one asshole with a shitty muffler doesn’t make them fear for their lives. But right now, it’s pretty clear that’s exactly what we’re living in.