In this piece Nathan Palmer uses two recent panics at airports in New York and Los Angeles to illustrate how social phenomena spreads in non-linear ways.
Two weeks ago there was a mass shooting in New York City at JFK airport, at least for a little while, and it barely received one day’s worth of attention from the news media. At 9:30pm on August 14th, a woman called 911 to report gunfire in terminal 8 of JFK airport. Within minutes there were stampedes of people in two separate terminals. People poured out of the airport and onto the tarmac. Police officers with weapons drawn ran through screaming for everyone to get down or to leave their luggage and run for their lives. Some 25,000 people inside the airport survived a nightmare two weeks ago, and it barely made a blip on the national news.
Hours after the 911 call, authorities concluded that no shots had been fired. Instead, they hypothesized that the gun shots the caller heard were actually the sounds of fans celebrating Usain Bolt’s Olympic victory in the men’s 100 meter event in a nearby bar.
And then it happened again last night in Los Angeles at LAX.
Reality is what we make it. However, what happens when people are deliberately misled or our prejudices and biases cloud our vision of reality? In this piece Nathan Palmer explores this idea and shows how two recent news events demonstrate the power of the Thomas Theorem.
Situations defined as real are real in their consequences. If you believed the hotel you were staying at was experiencing a gas leak and the only way to save your life was to break the sprinkler system with a porcelain toilet lid, would you do it?
For these unsuspecting hotel guests, they truly believed there was a gas leak and that if they didn’t break the sprinkler heads people were going to die. They believed the gas leak was real and they believed the person on the phone was really the authorities. Clearly they were manipulated by pranksters, but we see the same type of reality construction everyday.
These prank calls illustrate two important sociological concepts, the social construction of reality and the Thomas Theorem. Sociologists argue that reality is whatever we all agree it is. The Thomas Theorem contends that situations defined as real are real in their consequences. If we believe our hotel needs us to break a window, we are likely to do it.
A far more horrific example of this theorem can be seen in the killing of 17 year old Trayvon Martin. On the night of February 26th Martin was walking to his father’s house after purchasing a bag of skittles and an iced tea from a convenience store when George Zimmerman, a captain with the neighborhood watch program in the area, spotted him. Zimmerman called 911 from his truck and reported that a “real suspicious guy” was walking in his neighborhood. “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or on drugs or something,” Zimmerman continued. At this point Zimmerman had not yet verbally interacted with Martin or even got out of his truck, but already he had decided Martin was dangerous. Around this time Trayvon Martin pulled up his dark gray hoodie and covered his head.