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Renée Graham

Fraught with a uniquely American fear

Police stood guard in New York’s Times Square on Wednesday, after the sound of a backfiring dirt bike on Tuesday night caused a panic.
Police stood guard in New York’s Times Square on Wednesday, after the sound of a backfiring dirt bike on Tuesday night caused a panic.(Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)

A booming backfire. The cacophony of a falling sign. A video game mimicking the sound of rapid gunfire.

Once such sounds might, at best, have startled us. Now we’re more likely to respond with a mad dash toward the nearest exit or a solid object to duck behind or under.

After two recent massacres left at least 31 people dead and dozens injured, this nation is rattled down to its marrow. It doesn’t matter that the white supremacist accused of targeting Hispanics in a Walmart in El Paso last Saturday is in custody or that police killed the violence-obsessed man who opened fire in a Dayton, Ohio, neighborhood.

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With every public space feeling like a potential crime scene, we’re fraught with a uniquely American fear.

On Tuesday, a Utah mall was evacuated after false reports of a shooting. What many thought were gunshots turned out to be the sound of a falling sign hitting the ground. In New York’s Times Square, backfires from motorcycles turned a summer night stroll in one of the city’s most popular tourist areas into pandemonium. Fearing they were being attacked, hundreds tore through the streets and charged into stores for safety.

“I was freaking out even more just because those two mass shootings that happened earlier in the week — that’s just where your mind automatically goes to,” a woman visiting New York with her family told NBC News.

That’s also where my mind went as I recently sat in the waiting room of a local hospital. Normal sounds in that space – the squeaky wheel of a stretcher, a moan of discomfort, and whispered conversations — were interrupted by the blaring audio of a video game. Not just any video game, but one where shooting anything that moves seems the prime objective.

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Some people looked physically uncomfortable, even after they realized that the violence was confined to an iPhone. Yet the young woman was so engrossed in running up her score, she never noticed the stressed faces staring at her.

Other countries don’t harbor these fears.

There was a time when mass shootings seemed rare enough that they became a kind of punchline. After a series of post office shootings in the 1980s and 1990s, someone coined the term “going postal” to describe any disgruntled worker possibly prone to violence.

In a nation with enough firepower to arm every man, woman, and child, no one is laughing anymore. Just since 2014, mass shootings, including in places of worship, schools and universities, outdoor festivals, workplaces, nightclubs and bars, a women’s clinic, a yoga studio, a video game competition, a newspaper office, and a waffle house have claimed hundreds of lives.

And this doesn’t even take into account the daily, devastating gun violence that plagues cities like Chicago.

Though a poll found that 70 percent of all voters support banning assault-style weapons, President Trump says there’s “no political appetite” for such a move. He’ll do nothing, or as little as possible, after El Paso and Dayton, just as he did nothing after Las Vegas and Parkland. Trump and his co-conspirator, Senator Mitch McConnell, are more concerned with protecting their NRA support than their constituents.

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After the Times Square scare left more than 20 people injured, New York Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Bill de Blasio tweeted that “the panic and fear people felt tonight was all too real. Nobody should have to live in constant fear of gun violence. NOBODY.”

Yet here we are: twitching at every loud noise, eyeballing the closest exit when we enter an unfamiliar building, and buying bulletproof backpacks as back-to-school gear for kids.

This is what it means to be a nation in the throes of PTSD. Our government turns away, the bodies of friends, family, and neighbors multiply, and any semblance of the safety we once took for granted continues to disappear one bullet at a time.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.