I've learned who to send that message to over the course of many years. I know the list of friends or family who are going to reach out and ask if I don't let them know or respond with a certain period of time. I know who to preemptively comfort when something happens.
In the medical world, they say, "when you hear hoof-beats, think horses, not zebras." This philosophy, called Occam’s Razor, roughly means the most simple explanation is likely the actual explanation. As Americans, and particularly here in D.C., it has started to feel as though when something happens out of the daily norm, we always assume the worst scenario. I am now so accustomed to hearing about a lightning-strike scenario, the simpler scenario is the last thing to come to my mind.
I was on a conference call when I heard something about a "shooter" at the Capitol. I quickly wrote a note to my boss and showed her the message — her husband works on the Hill. Over the next few minutes, word spread about "shots fired," and confusion mounted.
She received an "I'm OK" message from her husband. I quickly shot off a number of texts and emails myself to that short list, out of an abundance of caution. It is second nature at this point. News travels quickly when something is amiss, and there have been so many horrific events over the course of the past few years, we are all practiced at quick and efficient responses.
Reaching out and letting people know you are alright and out of danger has become commonplace. Even without much evidence, Twitter, local and national news, and hundreds of residents immediately thought "active shooter situation." You might call it an overreaction, particularly with how little was known in the initial hour, but after everything this country has seen over the past few years and with the tension in the city, people reacted quickly and calmly to reassure loved ones they were fine.
It was just habit.
In 2011, a 5.8 earthquake in Virginia rocked D.C. I was at lunch with coworkers, a few miles from the Pentagon and National Mall, when we felt the rumble and saw the buildings shake above us. My first thought was that someone had attacked the Pentagon or that there had been a bombing in one of the parking garages around us. The thought was never "earthquake."
The Navy Yard shooting was the second mass shooting in my life in which I was within 10 minutes of the horror. The first time was 1999 in Littleton, Colorado. I wasn't in Washington, DC on September 11, 2001, nor was I here during the Beltway Sniper spree or the anthrax scare that followed. But the collective post-traumatic stress disorder of the region, the proximity to high value targets, and the constant state of heightened security and awareness breeds fear when anything unexpected interrupts the day and, as yesterday proved, that fear is often justified. So we run to social media or our phones to share information, reassure loved ones, and simply chronicle what we're experiencing.
In spite of all evidence that our day will be mostly normal, we're no longer a society that thinks of a horse before we think of a zebra when the day goes awry. Blame the media, blame the vitriol and hate we spew at each other on the new cycle, blame the NRA, blame the mentally ill but our generation hasn't had much relief from random, inexplicable violence and we're all feeling the lasting effects.
Details are still emerging about what happened yesterday on Capitol Hill. Maybe it was a conspiracy, or maybe it was a someone with mental health issues and no agenda at all. We have become so accustomed to a bombing, a terror attack, a mass shooting, or something equally sinister, that when a car chase happens to end on Capitol Hill, we jump quickly to the most awful conclusion.
What's becoming increasingly clear is that we, as a nation and a generation, will likely think of zebras every time we hear hooves, and that's the most awful conclusion of all.