A mall shooting rips away our collective security blanket

The Washington PostJanuary 29, 2014 

College campuses, movie theaters, elementary schools and shopping malls.

Are there any safe public spaces left in America?

It feels like the spree shootings are coming more and more frequently. Unless it’s in our neighborhood, we may not even click on the news alert that comes to our smartphones anymore.

The latest one was about 25 miles from the nation’s capital, in the Maryland suburb of Columbia, where Darion Marcus Aguilar, 19, took a taxi to the Mall in Columbia, grabbed a shotgun out of his backpack and killed two people, then himself.

But it could’ve been anywhere. The cookie-cutter suburban mall — the Gaps, the Victoria’s Secrets, the improbably resilient Yankee Candle Companies — is a kind of American security blanket. It’s familiar, clean and smells of Cinnabon. From every window, beckons the eternal hope of a chic look or organized life. The chain restaurants are all safe and predictable.

Even amid a stalled economy and an uncertain future, the mall remains a place where middle-class America exhales. A stylized retail Disneyland with no big surprises and no conflict more harrowing than fighting off the Dead Sea salts or chicken-sample people.

“It’s where we come to let the kids play,” said Heather Aiolupotea, as her 10-month-old climbed a bunch of foam grapes at the Columbia mall’s kiddie playground. “It’s the center of our community here, and it’s usually packed this time of day.”

Her husband, Koko, had taken the day off from his financial-planning job to take the kids to the mall, let them ride on the merry-go-round and support the community. They were eager to take back the old normal.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley had a fro-yo in the food court. A grandfather loudly Skyped with his grandkids from a coffee shop. The workers at Abercrombie & Fitch wrestled the jeans onto mannequins.

“I grew up here, all the stages of my life,” said Jennifer Molinari, 38, who got her prom dresses, first-day-of-school clothes and friend’s phone numbers at the mall.

“I got my wedding tuxedo right around the corner,” her husband, Steven, 49, told me.

They took the day off to be at the mall when it reopened Monday afternoon, after the shootings, and took a quiet moment to reflect on the white carnations floating in the fountain as a memorial.

“We were shocked” when we heard about the shooting Saturday, she said. “But at the same time, we weren’t.”

Every time they eat at the food court, Molinari scopes out the best hiding place for her two boys, ages 5 and 10, in case of an attack. “It’s like we’re sitting ducks out there. And I always said it was a matter of time before something happened here.”

Seriously?

They are not crazy conspiracy theorists. She’s a therapist, he’s a financial analyst. They’re just Americans who watch the news.

And their children? Like mine and probably yours, the children here have intruder drills at school — hiding inside the janitor’s closet while the teacher turns the lights off and tells them to hush.

When I was a kid, I was absolutely certain that I would die in a fire because of the annual fire drill at school, the stop-drop-and-roll PSAs and all the Smokey the Bear ads. By that logic, we are probably raising a generation of children who think that it’s perfectly normal to be dodging bullets at school.

The management of the Mall at Columbia praised the retail employees for their actions, doing “exactly what they were trained to do” in the shooting. Even baristas and sales-teens are trained for an attack.

Yes, this is the new normal: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, the Navy Yard. Or is it?

Last month two criminologists published a myth-busting article, “Mass Shootings in America: Moving Beyond Newtown,” which argued that mass shootings aren’t on the rise.

James Alan Fox and Monica J. DeLateur analyzed all kinds of multiple shootings — not just the ones in prominent, public spaces — and said that America has kept a steady pace of about 20 mass shooting a year since 1976.

This doesn’t make it feel any better. Or any safer.

To feel better, we Americans try to be problem-solvers. We press for stricter gun control laws, we look for better mental health initiatives. We wonder about violent video games.

Molinari, the therapist, said she thinks we are raising a generation of people who simply don’t know how to deal with their emotions. “In my work, I see younger people who don’t have coping skills for anger, for sadness, who aren’t resilient,” she said.

Add to that an existing stigma around getting mental health care. “People always come to me and tell me: ’I hope you don’t think I’m crazy,’ “ she said.

That’s crazy.

There was a string of stories over the past two weeks about the hastening death of American brick-and-mortar retail. We are starting to do more of our shopping online, and malls are struggling.

The kids are ahead of us on that. America’s teens don’t need to socialize at the mall. Today they’re on FaceTime and Skype. Who needs food courts?

Will this shooting — and others like it — be what brings about the death of our public spaces?

We’re safer ordering online and Skyping, hunkering down and avoiding danger. But we’re losing our freedom in the process.

Petula Dvorak is a Washington Post columnist.

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