Are people acting out more as America returns to normal?

I have no deep thoughts about this, only the observation that it feels like there are more cases lately than in the Before Times of people in public places behaving badly in noteworthy ways. And by “badly,” I mean everything from boorish heckling to assault to mass murder.


The most prominent example is fans getting kicked out of NBA arenas during the playoffs for interfering with the players or the game. The latest instance:

One fan spit on Trae Young of the Hawks. Another poured popcorn on Russell Westbrook. A fan in Boston chucked a water bottle at Kyrie Irving. In Utah, three fans were booted for taunting the family of the Grizzlies’ Ja Morant.

That’s … a lot, right? There are always fans who misbehave, but typically not so badly and so often that we’re hearing about a new case once every 48 hours or so. I think.

Another phenomenon is airline passengers behaving badly. Really badly in at least one case:

The flight attendant had two of her teeth knocked out. An isolated incident? Not exactly:

In a letter to Southwest chief executive Gary Kelly, the president of Transport Workers Union Local 556, the union for Southwest flight attendants, wrote that the Sunday incident was not isolated. There were 477 cases of passenger misconduct on the airline between April 8 and May 15.

“This unprecedented number of incidents has reached an intolerable level, with passenger noncompliance events also becoming more aggressive in nature,” Lyn Montgomery wrote.

Southwest is not the only airline with an increase in such incidents. Earlier this month, the Federal Aviation Administration said the agency was reviewing 1,300 reports of “unruly behavior” since February. (In the whole previous decade, the agency has initiated just 1,300 similar cases.)


Of the 2,500 or so reports of unruly behavior received by the FAA since January, 1,900 have to do with passengers not wanting to wear masks. Even so, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants told aviation officials recently, “We have just never seen anything like this. We’ve never seen it so bad.” Two airlines, American and Southwest, have gone as far as to stop serving alcohol on flights to try to limit the boorishness.

What about mass shootings? There have been a few of those lately too:

Workplace mass shootings are rare, but the killing of nine people by a fellow employee at a Northern California rail yard on Wednesday marks the third such rampage in under two months

A database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University found that between 2006 and February 2020, there had been 13 mass workplace shootings carried out by a current or former employee — roughly one a year on average.

“The reason they seem more frequent right now is because we haven’t had them really for the last year because of COVID,” Schildkraut says. Such restrictions have also served to limit opportunities for potential shooters “because it reduces the available targets for a person,” she says.

Officials in cities across the country, following the news about mass murders and the rise of violent crime this past year, have already begun preparing their police departments for more violence this summer, when tempers are prone to flare.


Add it all up and we’re left to wonder: What’s going on?

I have two half-assed theories. One: Nothing’s going on. Well, something’s going on with airline passengers, but that’s relatively easily explained. They’re chafing at mask rules after 15 months of being bossed around, with the risk from COVID falling every day. But maybe everything else — NBA fans being dicks, mass shootings, airline incidents unrelated to masks — is happening at roughly the same rate as it always has and we’re simply paying more attention at the moment because there have been so few shootings/fans at games/crowded flights over the past year. We’re also closely watching Americans reemerge, so every misstep is a headline.

Two: People are “decompressing” from the pandemic as they socialize again and some of them just don’t have the psychological structural integrity right now to decompress rapidly without failing. Americans have forgotten how to socialize; some of us, when placed in a high-stress social situation, might not be able to handle it at the moment with the same equanimity that we had before 15 months of COVID isolation. People who had a bit of a temper in 2019 may have a hair-trigger temper now, hopefully temporarily but possibly indefinitely. This may also explain why we’re seeing fans acting out at NBA games but not at MLB games. It’s playoff season in the NBA whereas MLB just finished the slow first third of its regular season. Walk into a baseball stadium right now and it might be half full. Walk into an NBA arena and it’s electric, packed to capacity. Some fans might not be able to handle all the stimulation yet. Same goes for airline passengers who are traveling for the first time in months. The same, maybe, goes for shooters, who suddenly don’t have the pandemic competing as much with their grievances for mental space.


Could be a long hot summer for America. Safer from COVID for sure, but maybe less safe in other ways.

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