Yesterday I experienced something that broke my heart and will change me forever. It’s a reflection on where we are in our country today. It’s the sound of fear and the movement towards safety that puts us in lock step with what we now call self defense against the active shooter.
I was at the mall yesterday doing something I have been doing for years; last minute Christmas shopping with one of my closest friends. She moved to Israel a few years back and comes home for Christmas every year. When she comes home, we take a deep breathe and embrace the madness of holiday shopping. This year she brought home her girlfriend.
Her girlfriend has never been here and I have never been to Israel. I make excuses to not visit because of my fears of danger in that part of the world. My friend always reminds me about the mass shootings here. I dismiss it as I feel safe in my country. All those stories feel so far from my reality. They are almost not true.
Yesterday we all went to Jersey Gardens. We pointed out all the stores we have to stop at and started discussing when we will separate because some secret shopping had to be done. My friend’s phone was about to die, so I gave her girlfriend my number just in case she needed to call us. I will remember how nervous she was to be on her own probably forever every time I think of this day. It’s now very eerie when I think about it.
It was about 5 mins after we left her at the food court when we heard screaming and a rush of people coming into the store we were at. The gates went down and we were being yelled at by the staff. They shouted,
“Get to the back of the store!!”
Through the gates I could see people running around and saying
“There’s a shooter! I heard gunshots”
I didn’t hear gun fire but I ran to the back anyway. I couldn’t get through the line of freaked out customers so I went back for a minute to look through the gate. There was peace out there for a minute as people walked around confused. When I found my friend she was shaking and asking for my phone. We quickly realized that we did not have her girlfriend’s number and her phone died. I could feel the fear in the room as we were forced into a narrow space. My friend ran around looking for an outlet to plug her phone in. I could hear her shouting,
“I need to find an outlet!!”.
Her girlfriend then called me and had a calm voice. She was safe. I can’t remember what she said I just knew she was calm. I yelled out to my friend as she was somewhere in the back of the storage room. I kept yelling “She is ok!!”
I started to scan the room as everyone discussed what they saw. They talked about people running and screaming. Some people talked about hearing multiple gunshots. It was quiet for a bit and the fear started to feel manageable. A few minutes later you could hear screaming and running again. I kept hearing the gates to store fronts slamming shut. It was at that moment that I was convinced it was all real. I was about to experience one of America's biggest fears.
I texted my sister and told her I was safe and in a storage room but something was happening in the mall. As her texts came in I kept trying to feel calm as the thoughts of it being the final texts to her was possible. I somehow remained calm. Even though thoughts of fear flooded my brain, my body remained calm. I will never understand why.
Some woman whose face I will never forget intensely approached me and asked,
“What is happening?”
I told her I didn’t know. She then looked into my eyes and said,
“You know what is going on!! I know you do”.
I will never get why she thought I was hiding something but I could tell she was extremely distraught. Her eyes were full of fear but I could not comfort her. I kept all my ideas of what could be happening to myself. I kept them to myself as I didn’t want to cause any panic.
“Everything is safe. We can all exit now”,
I saw one of the employees that heroically helped us into safety and called on us to be calm completely break down and cry.
We ran towards the restaurant my friend’s girlfriend seeked refuge at. When we found her, we left the mall. My friend was angry. She kept saying,
“Fuck this country”.
This was coming out of the mouth of someone that was once a patriot. Someone that would not tolerate any criticism of this country in the past. This was her reaction to what is now known as the hysteria of a mass shooting even if it was a false alarm.
When we left the mall we saw people walking in the parking lot looking for their cars. We passed police cars and heard sirens in the distance. A police officer told us that there was a fight in the food court and someone threw a table which caused the loud bang everyone reacted to. We will never know what caused the second round of panic. The second round that made everyone believe that we were indeed in danger.
I do not want to compare my traumatic situation with any mass shootings that came into actual fruition. The shootings that happened before this country was prepared to respond to it. I am grateful my situation was a false alarm. I’m grateful that we found out within 20 mins or so that there was no shooter and were not pondering for hours what those sounds of screaming were about.
Now I understand in many ways I am a spoiled American appalled by having to hide in a storage closet when other countries get bombed and have lived through wars. I understand that my trauma is because I am not being continuously traumatized daily and sleep in a safe bed every night. My trauma comes from the shift and the change. This random threat emphasized by extreme media coverage and the need for certain individuals to me immortalized by body counts.
Despite all of that I am sad. I am sad that a loud sound in a public space could cause such havoc. That it can cause false narratives and fears. That it can cause hysteria and trauma. What has become of us? You can go back and forth about gun control or mental illness. The truth is this is our new reality. This is our new boogie man. We are forever changed and now I know first hand. We are a country full of fear.