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How mass shootings make even Alaskans victims of terrorism

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: November 13, 2018
  • Published November 13, 2018

I realized for myself how America has changed one day in church when, instead of thinking about what the minister was saying, I imagined what would happen if someone began shooting.

It happened again at a community meeting. I guess it's in the back of my head all the time now.

I love country music. I thought about getting shot when I was looking at concert tickets online.

This is how it feels on the receiving end of terrorism. The fear works on the irrational part of our brains. And I think that fear is one reason why we haven't been able to find a solution.

The unease crept up on me. I didn't feel it after September 11, 2001, even though I lost a cousin in the World Trade Center.

At the time, the heightened security at the Barrow Airport seemed absurd. I thought, "How would a terrorist get to Barrow in the first place?"

But now I know the terrorists are everywhere. Most of them are just homegrown losers, American men who feel like failures and want everyone else to feel as badly as they do.

How do I know they're everywhere? Because fear tells me so.

I've walked through Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood with my son when he was in college there. Many Alaska friends had connections at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

It's no longer uncommon for Alaskans to have a connection to a mass shooting. There have been more than 130 of these events in our country.

For some of the college kids line dancing in Thousand Oaks, California, last week, it was the second time they had been under fire in just over a year, as they had already survived Las Vegas.

Those kids knew exactly what to do. They've grown up in the era of mass shootings. Like the teens in Parkland, Florida, they reacted like soldiers, half expecting bullets.

The chances of it happening to each of us remains small. I know that. I'm one of those annoying people who bring up statistics and rationality when people talk about their worries.

But the fear comes from a different part of the brain.

"That's from your amygdala. And I keep a close eye on mine," said Lou Theiss, an old friend who lives in Girdwood.

Five years ago, Lou had just gone through security at LAX when the entire airport was locked down. He was stuck seven hours. Five hours passed before he knew why.

"It was not knowing what was going on and just feeling rumors from other passengers, and the only information available was on the airport bar TV. That was what was really scary," he said.

Now he uses Orange County airport when he goes to L.A. Even though he knows, rationally, that doesn't make him any safer.

"It's just that geographic proximity thing, that paranoid thing," he said.

We each react differently. Sue Libenson reacted politically when she woke up to news of a massacre in the synagogue where she grew up, in Pittsburgh. She had planned a hike that day, but she had to do something.

(Just imagine, for a moment, if it was slaughter in your childhood synagogue or church.)

"I am not interested in banning guns," she wrote. "There are guns in my home. I am not even interested in becoming an expert on this. I do feel there needs to be more room for honest discussion. Our country is spiraling out of control and we need to at least make room."

I can't disagree, but we've had discussion. The conversation hasn't gone anywhere.

Ironically, the rising fear could be a reason for that.

Fear makes some of us want gun control, but it makes others want to hold tighter to our guns.

I can't imagine using my gun to shoot a human being. What do I know about gunfights?

But some people feel safer retreating into homes armed like fortresses. Many people think of their guns as protection. Talk of gun control scares them.

Rationally, guns can't protect us from most mass shootings (although occasionally a good guy with a gun has stopped one). Evidence is ample that more guns produce more shootings.

The security guard was the first person the Thousand Oaks assassin shot. He also killed a sheriff's deputy. The Vegas shooter sprayed bullets from a high rise.

Pastors and rabbis cannot and should not be asked to carry guns during services, nor teachers during classes. We cannot defend or harden all public places.

But I don't expect those points to convince anyone. That's the paradox of terrorism. Fear demands action, but what it is telling us to do is opposite to one another's impulses.

Terrorism works like poison, weakening our connection to one another. With distrust, communities disintegrate and those promising safety at any price can gain power.

Zoe Lamazou felt the impact of real international terrorism in Paris after the slaughter of the staff at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in 2015. She is a French journalist who, with her husband, Victor Gurrey, became my friend during a reporting trip to Alaska (see their brilliant work here).

"Every time I go to the train station (which I do a lot) I check the exit," she wrote from her home in Marseille, via instant messaging. "I check the concrete parts of the station where I could find a safe place to hide since I know that the bullets go through everything but concrete. I check places where I could climb on if there is a big crowd moving in panic. Literally I do that every time."

But she tries not to look with suspicion on the other passengers. Despite the fear, she knows distrust is wrong.

"We have to learn and develop … the faith in people and humanity," she wrote. "We have to work hard in our everyday life to reverse this violence by any way we can."

I agree. The first step to fight the killing is to overcome the fear.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

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