What Do You Do When The Shooting Starts?

by Christopher Farnsworth

I showed up just after the shooting started. I was maybe five minutes behind the gunman at Terminal 3 at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday. I was on my way to Vegas for an early birthday celebration for my brother when, according to the authorities, a 23-year-old named Paul Anthony Ciancia decided to work out a lunatic grudge against the Transportation Security Administration with an assault rifle. One TSA employee, Gerardo Hernandez, was killed, and at least three other people were wounded.

LAX is old news already. It was lost in the weekend cycle, even before a man in a motorcycle helmet opened fire at the Garden State Mall in Paramus last night.

It seems like this has been happening a lot. We’ve apparently learned to tolerate a level of human sacrifice that would make an Aztec priest queasy. With all this practice, you’d think we’d be better at dealing with it by now. But we’re not. At least, not when it happens to us.

The police had pulled up just ahead of my cab. People were outside the airport doors, talking on their phones, visibly shaken, some crying. And some were still headed inside, still trying to catch their flights. Finally, a traffic cop who’d blocked the road yelled at them to stop entering the airport. A young man with a thick German accent yelled back at him, something like, “Well, nobody will tell us what’s going on!”

He was right. What sticks with me now is the curious reticence of everyone around to speak up. Most of the people who’d fled the terminal were on their phones — either looking for information passively or communicating with friends or followers — or gathered in small, quiet groups. Other people hung nearby, as if waiting for the right moment to interrupt.

I can understand that reticence, because I felt it too. It seemed somehow the height of bad taste to ask people what was going on. Even the traffic cops were quiet. They probably lacked information, just like us, and they probably also wanted to avoid yelling anything that might cause a panic.

It was, honestly, the most polite I’ve ever seen people at LAX.

I found myself taking pictures and tweeting, even after the cops told us to clear out. I even saw a guy from the bomb squad go by — his nametape read SCULLY — and yet I still hung around. I spoke to three witnesses who’d been in line for security, just before the shooter opened fire. One man said the shooter put the gun in his face, and asked him if he was TSA. When he said no, the shooter moved on. He wasn’t hurt, but I didn’t think he was anywhere near all right.

I’ve covered shootings and crime scenes in the past. I know, in a sort of abstract, intellectual way, that bullets can tear through cinder block and hit people dozens, even hundreds, of yards from where they were fired. It was only when the cops began delivering information — by yelling “Shots fired! Shots fired!” — that I stopped playing with my iPhone and joined the flight attendants sprinting down the roadway. “He died while Tweeting” suddenly seemed like a really stupid epitaph.

Once everyone stopped running, I walked down the exit ramps from the airport, where people were starting to gather, and where the cars were backing up. A guy wearing a sport coat went running by in the opposite direction, dragging his carry-on behind him. Again, nobody seemed willing to tell him anything, so I told him there was a guy with a gun still running around loose inside. That slowed him down, but it actually didn’t stop him.

I realized there was no reason for me to stick around, so I found a cab and got a ride home.
I looked online for news and found that as quiet as everyone at the airport was, there was no shortage of people bellowing their theories online. It seemed like the level of certainty about what happened at LAX increased geometrically with the distance from the actual shooting.

This is what I heard: There were two shooters. (No. Just one.) The shooter was an off-duty TSA agent. (He wasn’t.) He’d escaped with the crowd. (He didn’t.) He had an AR-15. (Close, but no.) He was dead. (No. Wounded in the head and leg.)

And there were people who “joked” about a dead TSA screener as “nothing of value lost,” or dribbled their nonsense about false-flag operations and practice dummies and fake blood. I also got at least one troll on Twitter who implied that this never would have happened in a place with open-carry laws. Maybe these people thought they were being funny, or making a salient point about Obama, or even blowing the lid off the whole conspiracy. Maybe they even believed they would have been John McClane if it happened to them.

Those stories are a lot neater, a lot cleaner, and a lot more comforting. We’d like to believe we’re safe, first of all, that the checkpoint will keep the terrorists away. And that if somehow these systems fail, we’ll see some hero rise and handle every threat fast and hard. In my day job, I write those kinds of stories.

But that’s fiction. Something like this reminds us that removing our belts and shoes doesn’t mean much if a guy is toting an assault rifle. We discover how much we don’t know, how much is desperately uncertain, even as it’s all happening right in front of us. Sometimes, we find out that we are the extras in someone else’s idea of an action movie. From close up, all I could see was that we are still terribly vulnerable to each other. Maybe you’ll see for yourself, when it happens again.

Christopher Farnsworth is the author of the President’s Vampire series. He lives in Los Angeles. Photo of LAX’s control tower in 2009 by Pedro Szekely.