The idea of all the security we put up with at airports—the lines, the scanners, the bullshit—is so that when there’s an attack, we’ll all be orderly protected. On Sunday night at JFK Airport, we found out how wrong that is. Cheering for Usain Bolt at the Olympics appears to have been mistaken for gunfire and complete chaos ensued.
The issue is not that there was a perceived threat when there was none. It’s that during this perceived threat, all hell broke loose with cops not showing up, security at the airport giving up, and multiple stampedes allowed to run wild.
It’s a damning look at what would happen were there an actual attack at even a New York City airport, much like the last time JFK’s $100 million security got breached by a confused dude on a jetski.
New York Magazine published a firsthand account of what the night was like at JFK. That there was screaming crowds and real terror even in the absence of any actual terrorists is not surprising. What’s more worrying is the complete disorder and almost total lack of protection from the airport’s security apparatus. There was no sign of communication between parts of the airport, no useful organization of panicking crowds, and almost no evidence that the airport would have protected anybody had there been an active shooter or worse. “Where was my fucking billion-dollar NYPD anti-terror force?”, writer David Wallace-Wells asks.
It’s still not entirely clear what started the non-attack, as Wallace-Wells notes. Either cheering for Usain Bolt’s 100m dash sounded like gunfire, or someone screamed they saw a gun, or already-panicking crowds knocked over the metal poles that divide airport lines, and they clacked on the tile floors sounding like gunfire. But that was enough to spawn multiple stampedes, none of which had any direction:
There was a second stampede, I heard some time later, in Terminal 4. I was caught up in two separate ones, genuine stampedes, both in Terminal 1. The first was in the long, narrow, low-ceilinged second-floor hallway approaching customs that was so stuffed with restless passengers that it felt like a cattle call, even before the fire alarm and the screaming and all the contradictory squeals that sent people running and yelling and barreling over each other — as well as the dropped luggage, passports, and crouched panicked women who just wanted to take shelter between their knees and hope for it, or “them,” to pass. The second was later, after security guards had just hustled hundreds of us off of the tarmac directly into passport control, when a woman in a hijab appeared at the top of a flight of stairs, yelling out for a family member, it seemed, who had been separated from her in the chaos.
Wallace-Wells got separated from his wife after they landed and got stuck in a JFK-typical gigantic line, disrupted by the initial flash of panic. His wife’s story gives little hope to any of us that we’ll be protected in any way come a genuine attack:
She’d been running down the hallway, she told me later, when the terminal turned and her crowd of sprinters met another crowd of sprinters, which everybody took to mean there were multiple shooters, attacking from multiple directions. Somebody called out they’d seen four of them. Soon she found herself in another stairwell, where there was one guard sobbing hysterically and screaming and another dismissing anyone who turned to him for help or leadership by yelling that he didn’t want to die tonight, either.
Eventually they found each other, escaped out of the terminal and onto the tarmac with another rushing crowd breaking seemingly every airport security protocol. From there, they got ushered back into the airport and huddled into a tiny, vulnerable room, then sent back onto the tarmac again. At no point during the mess were they addressed by police of any kind, only after it was entirely clear that there was no attack whatsoever, and the biggest threat to any people in the airport was somebody else trampling them, unchecked and panicked.
It’s not just a question of how little did JFK airport security do to protect anyone. The question is now becoming whether or not all of this security theater actively made people less safe.