Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you.
"A 26-year-old Peapack-Gladstone resident was in custody Thursday after being charged with possession of two Glock handguns and hollow-nose bullets inside the East Tower of the Headquarters Plaza complex on Speedwell Avenue on Wednesday."
The man police arrested, Andrew Pfitzenmayer, was also found wearing a bulletproof vest. He had an expandable police baton, a fake badge, and a backpack filled with handcuffs. According to police, Pfitzenmayer gave inconsistent statements about what he was doing, telling police at one point that he was there "for a job."
That was six weeks ago, just two blocks from where I work.
Headquarters Plaza, where Pfitzenmayer was arrested, consists of two adjacent aboveground towers. One is a fancy hotel; the other is an office building. Connecting the two is an underground mall with a day care center, a movie theater, restaurants, and a parking garage. The hotel tower is a popular venue for conventions and wedding receptions. The plaza is crowded even on the weekends.
The arrest sounds like a disaster averted.
I've never met Pfitzenmayer, and I'm not clinically paranoid, so I'm confident he wasn't after me. But he didn't need to be. Had the police not intervened, I only had to be in the wrong place at the wrong time to become his victim.
And these days, public places feel more and more like the wrong place, no matter the time.
Mass public shootings in the US are becoming more common. As the Washington Post reported last month, "The Mass Shooting Tracker, a crowd-sourced project of the anti-gun folks at the Guns Are Cool subreddit, lists 203 mass shooting events so far in 2015. Add in the shooting at a Louisiana movie theater last night and you get 204. Incidentally, yesterday was the 204th day of the year." These statistics don't even capture the would-be killers and their almost-massacres. Those barely even make national news. The near-catastrophes, like what happened at Headquarters Plaza last month, are resigned to the local rags, one good catch away from a world where the president had to go on television again.
These last few months, I've carried paranoia around with me like an ominous unstoppable soundtrack. The feeling didn't come on suddenly. I didn't wake up one morning and think, Shit, I may be shot at work today. It crept in over time. I became aware of a growing fear the way you become aware of a toothache. You tolerate a vague, generalized unease for a while until you realize that it's coming from your tooth and it hurts.
I now feel uneasy in all public spaces. When my girlfriend and I went to see Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation on opening day we were running a little late, so we had to sit in the front row. It had only been a week since a gunman shot two women in a Louisiana movie theater. I felt exposed, and cast a quick glance at any person who walked in late, anyone who got up to pee. I told myself that if it looked like anyone was reaching for a gun, I'd bum rush him before he had a chance to get a shot off. I stopped holding my girlfriend's hand because my palms were so sweaty.
A local Starbucks, where, like many other freelancers, I spend most of my working time, has transformed from a place of intellectual stimulation for me to a source of ineradicable anxiety. I used to be content to be lost in thought there, "in the zone" for hours on end, wrists sore from typing, occasionally indulging in a little people-watching when my eyes needed a break from reading or my mind from thinking. Now I'm in a constant state of heightened awareness, reflexively craning my neck at every jarring noise or creak of the entrance door, prepared to give each new patron a thorough and unapologetic visual interrogation.
I look for people who seem to have something unusual about them. Do they look angry, or are they just hangry? Why is that one fidgeting? Do they have poison ivy, or sunburn, or are they mentally ill? Does that backpack look unusually bulky?
But below all of that, I'm looking for people who look a lot like me. Most of the people who've opened fire in public places aren't women, or children, or members of a family stopping for some coffee — they're lone white men.
This summer, Mother Jones reported that of the 70 mass shootings across the country since 1982, 44 of the killers were white men. Only one was a woman. That guy they arrested with guns, ammo, vest, and other nefarious paraphernalia in Headquarters Plaza in Morristown? He was a white man too.
And so I can't help it. When I'm in a public place and I see a white man alone, the worry comes. Then the questions. Is that guy plotting revenge on his ex-wife? Did that guy just lose his job? Is that guy who is sitting alone talking to himself? Is that a swastika tattoo on his arm?
Oftentimes, I'm a white man out by himself, too. Are people asking themselves the same questions about me? I wouldn't blame them.
I know what you're thinking: I'm just being irrational. That's probably the worst insult you could throw at me — I generally pride myself on being someone with an appreciation for reason, who relies on the empirical methodology of science. So yes, I've looked up the leading causes of death in America. I know I'm more likely to die in a car accident or from a myocardial infarction than from a bullet. This is the year I had to go on both a statin and an ACE inhibitor — not one where I've even been in the same room as a would-be shooter.
I've been thinking about why I'm afraid — and why, I suspect, there are others who in these last few years have found themselves walking around with the same fears.
Gun violence has an aura of cold, random chance that even a car accident lacks. It may be an illusion, but when I drive, I feel completely in control. I feel so in control that I imagine I could compensate for the poor decisions or distractedness of other drivers. Is that foolish? Yes. But the feeling is what's decisive. When I think of how I would react if someone threatened me with a gun, confidence isn't among the feelings that come to mind.
What could I do in the face of a mass shooter? I don't own a gun. I've never even fired one. The idea that I could out-shoot a committed killer is a myth anyway. And while I'm big and strong at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, I'm not quick on my feet. I can't dodge a bullet, but I can't wrestle one either.
I was in my Starbucks office the morning a gunman murdered Alison Parker and Adam Ward. I watched the situation unfold on Twitter. When someone tweeted that the shooter had posted a view of the murder from his perspective to Facebook, I was skeptical, so I clicked on the link. The second I saw Parker, Ward, and Vicki Gardner in the frame from a different angle than what was reported on TV, I knew it was genuine. I felt instantly nauseated.
I've seen death online before — I watched the WikiLeaks "collateral murder" video from Iraq, for instance. I even saw death on live TV back when I was 15 years old when R. Budd Dwyer, a senator embroiled in controversy in my home state of Pennsylvania, killed himself during a press conference. After he read from prepared notes, he pulled out a Magnum .357, put it in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. I remember seeing a tuft of hair fly off the back of his head as he immediately slumped to the floor. It was sickening, but through the years I never thought of it again — until now. At least there wasn't HDTV back then.
Maybe watching the video of Parker and Ward being killed from the shooter's point of view created some sort of a participation mystique for the digital age, evoking some kind of twisted sympathy. Not sympathy in the nice sense but in the literal one: experiencing what it feels like to murder someone. Maybe watching that video was like finally chomping on something hard and being forced to realize the pain I've been experiencing is an abscessed tooth requiring root canal or extraction.
In the aftermath of the murders, some said we shouldn't watch the shooter's video because it's "disrespectful of the dead and also painful to their loved ones," and may even encourage copycat killers. Others said we should watch it, "because our society unfortunately needs vivid reminders of the awesome, life-stopping power of firearms." We need to feel repulsed, in other words. We need to experience pain. So while some say we should pull that tooth, others say we should leave it in so the pain can be a reminder of — what? Bad oral hygiene? Is watching videos like the Virginia shooter's a sort of moral hygiene for the mind?
Maybe so. I'm politically liberal and a supporter of stronger gun control measures — I don't need to see those types of videos to demand action on this issue. But I did watch it, and it can't be unseen. It can't be unfelt. And that is the feeling that's driving my fear.
When FDR said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, he characterized that fear as a "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." George W. Bush recommended something similar after 9/11. While resisting fear may be an appropriate response to things like war and terrorism, it doesn't seem that way for gun violence — more Americans were killed by gun violence in 2013 alone than by terrorists in the prior 14 years, including 9/11. The fear is justified. The fear should motivate us.
There's another saying that comes to mind: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. These days, it seems like eternal vigilance may be the price of life, too. And even though no one may be after you, maybe a little paranoia in public places is a necessary constituent of that vigilance. That's the country we live in.
Steve Neumann is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Daily Beast, the Toast, and other outlets. You can find links to his published work at his website and follow him on Twitter at @JunoWalker.