JFK’s Rhinoceros Problem

We’ve all seen a thousand of those movies. We’ve see it in TV shows, heard it on the radio, read it in the news — at some point, it’s reached just about every media source out there. It has saturated our culture to the point where its mention has become absolutely inescapable. But there’s always a disconnect. You can try to empathize — pretend like you’ve put yourself in the victims’ shoes and go from there — but you’ll never really understand it. The problem is that you don’t realize how much you’re missing. You can pour over every piece of information available about a specific incident until you’ve memorized its backstory, its progression, its consequences, its actors and motivations and impacts, but until you’ve experienced it yourself you can never truly understand it.

I never expected to live it. All those news stories — Istanbul, Orlando, Paris, Sandy Hook — you hear about them and you might believe you appreciate the gravity of the situations their victims faced. You can imagine their fear. Their confusion. Their hysteria. You can imagine the instant in which that all-consuming terror arrives hand-in-hand with recognition that settles over you like a black fog. But you never expect it to happen to you. Crises like this — they’re an abstract concept. Sure, they can be fleshed out by real consequences, real impacts, but those belong to the people on the news. They’re somebody else’s reality. Until your luck runs out, you just live in a world in which these things happen. They’re not yours. They’re somebody else’s experiences and you are a guest to them. When you see footage of a terrorist attack on CNN, you are an observer. It’s a second, third, fourth-hand crisis.

Dad called a few hours after the incident to make sure we were okay. I’d say we were, but then again I’m pretty sure I was still in some kind of shock. Dad used the word ‘panic’. I hadn’t really given the experience a concrete name at that point, but it fit.

Panic is the feeling that takes hold when you witness thirty people running, silent, down the terminal. It’s when you instinctively understand that they’re not running towards something; they’re running away. Panic is the moment when you look the person you love in the eye and you wordlessly confirm to each other what you both already know: you’re in danger. It’s that choking sensation that seizes you half a second later — when your throat constricts and you feel as though your heart’s stopped despite its mile a minute pounding in your chest. It’s when you crawl like a child would underneath cold metal seats for shelter, numb to the scrapes and bruises and sprains because you know that they’re peanuts to the alternative.

I’m lucky enough to say that, before five days ago, I’d never experienced panic — at least not in the intended sense of the word. Before Sunday, panic meant arriving at the airport without a passport. Horror existed only as a response to scenes in certain movies. Fear tainted the journey to switch off the basement light. No: before Sunday, I had never known true panic, or horror, or fear. It takes a certain kind of experience to bring one to that realization and I can say with heartfelt honesty that I thank my lucky stars that it has taken me twenty-two years to endure one as eye-opening as the night of August fourteenth.

The funny thing about panic is that it doesn’t just hit you once. It’s like a fire. A rumor can spark it. An alarm might provide the breath of oxygen it needs to ignite. Stoke it with unease, tension, unexpected news or worse, gunshots, a stampede, security guards fleeing in terror and it’ll amplify into an amorphous beast that engulfs you until the only thoughts racing through your head shriek at you, over and over and over like so many harpies, that you are in danger.

An article on the local news provided the ember that would eventually consume terminal one. A young woman sitting two seats down from me, waiting for the same indefinitely-delayed flight, decided to check the news for information on why our plane had not yet arrived. Her first visible reaction to the article appeared to be disgust. She cocked her head at her phone and her lip rose in a slight sneer. “You’d think they would have said something to us”, she muttered to nobody in particular. Although nobody meant to eavesdrop, her statement did not go unnoticed. A traveler seated across from her asked her what she had found, and from there the information circulated quickly around gate seven. A sense of betrayal, mired in disbelief, permeated the air; We felt deceived. For reasons beyond our control, the authorities had deemed it unnecessary to inform the would-be travelers in terminal one that a shooting had occurred just half an hour ago seven terminals away. Nobody really knows how to digest news like that — not immediately, at least. Your rationality takes a blow when presented with information so unsettling. Your thoughts begin to wander into dark corners in which nothing good can dwell. A sinking feeling creeps over you, snaking its tendrils into your body, wrapping around your lungs, your stomach, your heart. The meticulously maintained, brightly lit terminal feels just a little colder.

Somewhere, an alarm sounds, piercing ears and the still air; it blows upon those embers with determined breaths and coaxes them to glow, glow, hotter and brighter as a fresh wave of fear washes over you. Goosebumps mottle your skin, and the rationality that we hold so dear as human beings struggles to right itself from a nosedive into paranoia. You try to reason through the evidence that’s telling you that you are not okay. It can’t be right. You attempt to erect shields of reason to protect yourself from the panic. One by one, they crumble.

Truth-shield one: This is JFK, one of the largest airports in the world. You’re in terminal one — the article mentioned terminal eight. Even if the shooter had launched an attack there, there’s no way he would have made it past an army of security and seven terminals to reach you.

Paranoia hits like a blast of nitrogen gas and your truth-shield freezes and shatters, leaving you with a frost-bitten hand and absolute vulnerability to the onslaught of maliciously pessimistic thoughts that rain down upon you like so many arrows (or bullets). The shooter made it this far because he’s adept. He disabled or circumvented all of JFK’s police and is here now. Or maybe there’s more than one. Maybe he came with a squad of capable gunmen who are converging on terminal one right now. If that’s the case — if trained, armed officers couldn’t neutralize the attackers — how on earth can you? Clearly you’re at their mercy. You’re going to be shot. Or maybe they’ll take you hostage. Maybe they’ll do both. Why? Who knows. But clearly your life is at risk.

Your lucid brain returns for an instant but this time it’s not on your side. Like an impish turncoat, it bluntly reminds you that terminal eight is not seven terminals away because that’s not how this airport works. Terminal eight is next door. The assailants did not have far to travel and they have been here for half an hour. Your safety waltzed out the back door twenty minutes ago without leaving so much as a hint. Just like that, whatever incoherent shards remained of truth-shield one disintegrate into a cloud of dust.

Your palms are sweaty even though you feel like some invisible ice-creature is trying to rip out your heart. You don’t know what to do, so you sit and you wait. You’re unsure of what you’re waiting for, however; maybe the alarms will turn off and a team of flight attendants will magically appear and everything will return to normal and you’ll present your ticket and board the plane and fly to Budapest for your couples’ weekend just like you planned. Maybe you’re waiting for something else entirely. In the meantime, you move on to truth-shield two. Another alarm sounds, closer than the first one. The original has still not been addressed, so there are now two alarms shrieking at you like crazed animals. You do your best to shut them out.

Truth-shield two: this is New York City. Its police department is the eighth-largest military force in the world. Port Authority protects the airport from threats. They’re looking for bombs, but they have the means to defend against terrorists. They have to. To build upon truth-shield one, any assailant would have to brute force his way past a veritable army of controversially well-armed officers. Although the NYPD has elicited well-founded outrage over its violent practices, you can assure yourself that, right at this moment, as the fear of whatever unknown assailant threatens to reduce you to an inhuman entity governed by fight and flight, those practices can only work in your favor. For one fleeting instant, you believe you’ve found a way to turn the tide against the terror clawing up your spine.

But you’re not that lucky (or rational — at least not right now). Truth-shield two goes the same way as its predecessor. Clearly the shooter(s) made it to you because he (they) is (are) skilled. Either your defenders have been mowed down like so many biting flies or the attacking force managed to elude them and subsequently invade your terminal. Both are terrifying in their own respects: the first implies impressive firepower and hostiles who used it to devastating effect. The second suggests intelligence. The attacker is smart and, even worse, probably knows the layout of the airport. They must, if they managed to duck past the security. Which means that this is all part of some intricate plan that you, against you will and beyond any control of your own, are now a part of. You feel lightheaded and, although you can’t see yourself, you’re sure that the blood has left your face. You skip the ‘you look like you’ve seen a ghost phase’ and take on the appearance of one yourself, pale white with dinner plate eyes. If this is all planned, then the attacker is some number x steps ahead of you and you are by association part of their game.

And just like that — in less than an instant, truth-shield two has come and gone and you’re left there with nothing standing between you and the panic. Your harried brain tries desperately to build a new wall, but can offer nothing more than fleeting wisps of arguments that bounce harmlessly off the immense, impenetrable weight of the panic settling over your body, suffocating you. Airports are fortresses. They expect attacks. You would have heard gunshots. You would have seen emergency lights outside. There would have been an announcement. Maybe the gunman’s been shot by now. Maybe they’re about to be. Maybe reinforcements have arrived and the cavalry in blue have come to save you. Better yet, the cavalry in black. SWAT could handle this — if the shooting happened half an hour ago, maybe they’re close, or already here. And the last rationality that isn’t a fact or reason but an attempt at a shred of a glimmer of hope because there’s no way this can possibly be happening because what are the fucking odds that this would happen to you because this doesn’t happen to you because it only happens to people on TV and how could it possibly be happening to you right here, at gate seven of terminal one, and right now, at ten twenty-one PM on Sunday, August fourteenth, twenty-sixteen?

It’s not real. You’re dreaming. It isn’t happening because it flat-out isn’t possible.

Truth-shields three through thirty stand about as much chance against the panic as a cloud of dust would against a herd of rhinoceros — or rather, as my last shreds of reasoning power did against the sight of hysteric travelers in their eerily silent escape down the terminal.

I lost myself to that stampede of dust and rhinos.