As the dust settled, a few people coughed. Chunks of concrete tumbled to a stop, some landing at the feet of an off-duty officer standing in a daze in the devastated food court. Not much was clear other than the fact the mall had been the target of a bomb.
Survivors started to gather in the food court with the officer. Seeing confusion, fear, and panic flit across the faces of his fellow survivors, the officer climbed on top of a dust and soot covered table calling for everyone’s attention. As the crowd moved closer, he did a quick head count. 45 adults, including himself, and about 6 kids ranging in age from about 8 to 17, he guessed.
“Okay, so there is a good number of us still standing.”
He was interrupted by a well-dressed woman in broken stilettos staring at her phone. “The news says that one of the people responsible is still in here with us!”
Another survivor stepped closer to her. “What else are they saying? Are they working on getting us out?” He gestured to the pile of rubble blocking the mall’s entrance. “I tried four emergency doors but none of them will open.”
The woman cursed under her breath as she poked vigorously at her phone. “My phone just lost service!” She looked up; panic stricken.
Almost everyone in the crowd began moving at once as people reached into pockets and purses for their phones. Mumbles of “nope” and “I don’t have service either” echoed through the group.
“It’s likely they cut service due to the possibility a cell phone was used to detonate the bomb. No service no secondary explosives,” the cop explained. He cleared his throat and squared his shoulders.
“Right. So, as I was saying, there’s a good number of us standing. The best thing to do is break into groups. We need some folks to gather first aid kits and tend to the injured. We need others to get food and water. The rest of us need to get tools and shovels and such in order to get through the rubble, so we can get out of here that much quicker.”
Nods of agreement swept through the crowd. The cop started pointing and instructing people to move to this side or that, organizing them into groups for assignments.
“What about the asshole who put us here!?” A man in his 50’s with a soot covered baseball cap demanded. “We need to find him,” he said looking at the other suspiciously. A few quiet agreements quickly turned into aggressive shouting.
“What about her?”
“That guy looks shady!”
Within seconds, a handful of survivors, all noticeably minorities or odd looking, were forced to the center of a menacing circle the other survivors formed around them.
A man in his early 20’s with a hunched posture, greasy hair and pimple covered face, who had gone unnoticed until now, spoke up.
“We don’t know for sure the person or persons responsible are even in here. That news headline was likely click bate. The media loves using scare tactics to get followers.”
His extent of his shyness was becoming apparent as his red, ruddy face turned a deeper shade, the flush creeping down his neck and sweat beading on his forehead and staining the underarms of his threadbare t-shirt.
“We can’t act like…like…like people.” He finally brought his eyes to the crowd with the last word.
A woman in her mid-40’s throws her arms up, encompassing all around her and exclaims in a British accent: “What are you on about? We are people!”
The man locked eyes with her, unphased by her outburst.
“You, ma’am, are a person. A person has the ability to remain calm, use their intellect and experience, and respond to emergencies with efficient actions. People, on the other hand, often resort to mob-mentality. Placing blame is the easy thing to do. But blame is just a way to avoid responsibility.”
Multiple voices erupted all at once.
“I didn’t blow the place up!”
“It’s not my fault! Why should I take responsibility?”
“No one but the coward who blew this place up is responsible!”
The young man nods and calmly replies:
“Responsibility is made up of two words, response and ability. The person who blew up the mall is at fault, yes, but that’s not the issue at hand. No matter whose fault it is, we are faced with the aftermath. And each and every person standing in this spot has the ability to respond. We can choose to respond by throwing blame, but that clearly leads to mob mentality and mob mentality seeks to throw the blame at anyone who it’ll be most likely to stick to.”
He gestures to the people huddled in the middle of the food court.
“Such as the oppressed, those in minority, those who don’t fit the acceptable social norm. Acting like people brings us no closer to getting out of here. It doesn’t offer help to the hurt. It doesn’t deliver the bodies to their families. It just adds to the fear, the chaos, and the sense of helplessness.”
The man turns and points to the off-duty cop, still standing on the table from which he was barking orders.
“He had the right idea in that we need to help the hurt, we need to find water and food, we need to try to get through the rubble. But he was acting from a position of power and authority.”
The officer started to respond to this accusation, but the young man turned back to the crowd and continued.
“Rather than being people wielding power, we need to act as a team of persons. Suggest, collaborate, organize, and execute. That’s the only way we can all get out of here with as little risk for further harm as possible.”
The crowd was stunned into silence. No one so much as shuffled their feet. They all turned the man’s words over in their minds, trying to understand why they felt a blanket of shame drape over them. The police officer climbed off the table and moved to face the crowd next to the man who had shrunken back into his socially awkward shell. His shoulders drooped, his eyes locked on his shoes, his hands crossed protectively across his chest. The cop put a hand on the man’s shoulder, lightly squeezing, and nods before turning to the crowd.
“This young man has a point. I think I speak for everyone here when I say I am sorry for targeting you,” he says to the people of color, still standing in a cluster in the middle of the circle. “I’m a police officer and I have some basic first aid training, so I’ll go gather supplies and see what I can do to help the injured.”
The well-dressed woman in broken stilettos stepped forward.
“I’m an administrator for the county hospital. I don’t have any medical training per se, but I’ve been in the emergency room more times than I can count and have observed dozens of surgeries to oversee new tech, so I think I could be of some service, Officer. Can I help?” The cop smiles appreciatively and nods.
The voices in the crowd rose in volume, but they had lost their venomous tones. Soon everyone, including the children, organized themselves into groups and set off to their tasks. Eight survivors remained in the food court, two women and six men, including the young man who spoke truth of power and responsibility, facing the rubble blocking their way out. An older man, a retired contractor, pointed out areas that should be reinforced before they moved anything. As a group they determined what they would need and set about finding supplies and tools. 15 minutes or so later, they reconvened with their finds and set to work stabilizing the caved in roof and using skipoles to pry large chunks of concrete out of the way. An hour into their endeavor, one of the kids, a boy around 8, brought them bottles of water and bags of beef jerky and potato chips. He sheepishly admitted his group had broken open the vending machine to get to the food before running back to his mother. The group ate and drank in silence, then went back to work.
After three grueling hours, they had carved a tunnel through the debris. Tears of relief and joy and sheer exhaustion rolled down their grime covered faces when they finally made it to the other side and heard the fire fighters yell “We see you! Stay where you are! We are going to clear the rest of the way.”
They retreated to the food court and stood around, talking excitedly about what they would do when they got out. All but one.
The young man who had so uncharacteristically chastised the mob was standing a few feet away from the circle, his hands in his pocket, shifting his weight from foot to foot, lost in thought as he watched the team. Suddenly, he stands up straight, takes his hands from his pocket, and mumbles something before turning and running towards the mountain of debris. The woman standing nearest him twirled around and shouted after him: “Sorry for what!?”
The man ran into the tunnel, leaving his team confused and alarmed. Their excited discussion quickly turned anxious. Questions and speculations bounced around the group as they tried to make sense of the man’s words and actions right up until the rescue team made it inside.
An hour later the off-duty cop was leaning against a fellow officer’s cruiser, a cup of coffee in hand, bandages on his arms and face, his head tilted up at the starry night sky.
“Can you believe we collared the perp so easily? The kid practically jumped into our arms!”
The officer’s head snapped forward. “What are you talking about? Who’d you collar?”
“The friggen kid who blew up the joint! He tumbled out of the rubble shortly before fire and rescue made finished their excavation. As soon as he appeared, he tried to high tail it. Luckily, we caught his accomplices who blocked the emergency exits and in exchange for lesser charges they rolled on the kid and told us who he was, what he looked like, what he was wearing. It was like the worlds easiest ‘Where’s Waldo?’,” the uniformed officer laughed at his own joke, but his smile fell when he saw his friends face. “What’s wrong?”
“I just can’t friggen believe it. That kid, he seemed like such a, well, a good guy! Where’s he being held?” The uniformed officer told him all he knew, which proved sufficient to help the officer track the young man down.
A week later, two men sat in a small room: the young man with hunched shoulders wearing bright orange, the officer on duty in a suit and tie. They sat in silence for a long moment after they settled at opposite sides of the table.
“I don’t really care why you blew up the mall. I need to know…after trying to blow up the mall and kill people, what made you choose to defend the others? How can someone mean to end the lives of dozens, but then come to the rescue and defense of a few people he doesn’t know? I mean, you could have let us accuse someone else, could have tried to make a run for it. I just don’t get what your thought process was there.”
The young man sat silently for a time, studying the handcuffs clicked snugly around his wrists and looped through a hook on the table. The officer sat forward and took a breath to say more when the young man finally spoke.
“I’ve been bullied my whole life. I was sick of it. I had to teach those yuppies a lesson. At least that’s what I intended. But something went wrong. I didn’t set all the charges right, and I mis-timed the fuses so I ended up getting stuck in there with the rest of you. At first, I thought, well, karma. At least I got some of those jerks who tormented me my whole life. When everyone started blaming the minorities and less than perfect, pushing them to the center of the court like that, I realized that all I accomplished was perpetuating the senseless oppression I was trying to stop. I couldn’t sit by and let innocent people get hurt. I recognized the looks on their faces. That black man’s face, the Indian woman’s face. That little old Asian guy. I recognized it because I’ve seen it in the mirror for years. So I thought ‘okay, if I can’t blow up the oppressive powers in this town, maybe I can beat it back with some truth. I spoke that truth to power, and it responded.”
The cop stood and signaled to the guard to unlock the door. He patted the young man’s shackled hands and shook his head, looking at him with a mixture of pity and understanding, and walked out.