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Omaha mall massacre renews security debate

In recent years, massacres have occurred in the most benign settings, giving Americans a  choice — move toward airport-style security or accept the slim chance that tragedy could strike anywhere.
Image: Shopping
Holiday shoppers walks past stores at Old Orchard Shopping Center in Skokie, Ill., Friday. The holiday season is especially challenging for mall security because of the throngs of shoppers, experts say.Stacie Freudenberg / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

An Amish schoolhouse. A college classroom building, bustling with students and professors. An upscale department store at a mall, decked with holiday trimmings.

In recent years, massacres have occurred in the most benign settings, confronting Americans with a troubling choice: move toward airport-style security in a wide range of public places or fatalistically accept the slim chance that tragedy could strike anywhere in a free society.

In Omaha, where a suicidal gunman killed eight people Wednesday at Von Maur department store, extra police have been deployed at shopping malls. A local security firm reports increased requests from retailers for advice and guards.

Yet security experts say Americans don’t want their stores to become fortified, as they are in Israel, where fears of terrorism have led to checkpoints and metal detectors at shopping malls. Israeli shoppers are accustomed to opening their bags for inspection, and several guards have been killed while blocking would-be suicide bombers from entry.

“Our shopping centers also have the ability to deploy screening stations and bring in armed guards,” said Malachy Kavanagh of the New York-based International Council of Shopping Centers. “But you’re hopeful we never get to that point in this country. We do not want to get to that point.”

Kavanagh noted that most Americans shop near their homes — partaking in what, more so than baseball, is the great national pastime.

“It’s part of their community, part of their daily life,” he said. “They’d be thinking, ‘I’m here all the time, and now you want to search me?’ It would be an affront to them.”

Schools, theme parks face dilemma
Of course, Americans already have been forced to adjust to searches and screenings in numerous situations — not just at airports, but when entering many courthouses, stadiums, office buildings and schools.

Yet who would have expected there to be security measures at the one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa., where a gunman killed five girls last year? It was as simple and innocent as a school could be, with a little bell cupola on the roof and a sign near the blackboard that read, “Visitors Bubble Up Our Day.”

After the Virginia Tech massacre in April, colleges and universities rethought their entire security plans. Virginia Tech itself modified some classroom doors so they can be locked from inside.

But most schools focused on implementing or improving emergency notification systems, not limiting access to public buildings, said Alison Kiss, program director of the group Security on Campus. The general sentiment, she said, is that college campuses need to be open places, even if that means imperfect security.

America’s theme parks have wrestled with a similar dilemma — how to provide security that doesn’t dampen the spirit of fun that visitors are seeking.

Walt Disney World, for example, keeps tabs on guests with officers in plainclothes and uniform, along with a sophisticated video surveillance system. The park began checking bags and backpacks after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but as yet it has not followed the path of numerous other theme parks by requiring visitors to pass through metal detectors.

Experts: Challenging during holiday season
The Omaha massacre, carried out by a troubled 19-year-old, was the deadliest mall shooting on record in the United States. In February, five people were killed at a mall in Salt Lake City by an 18-year-old who was shot dead by police.

Reed Nyffeler, director of sales and marketing at Omaha-based Signal 88 Security, said his firm had received dozens of calls from local stores since Wednesday inquiring about stepped-up security measures.

The holiday season is especially challenging for mall security because of the throngs of shoppers, making it difficult for employees and guards to keep track of potentially suspicious people, he said.

Nyffeler estimated that, nationwide, only about 5 percent of mall security officers are armed.

“We function mostly as a visual deterrent,” he said. “Our intent, even with the armed security, is not to apprehend. It’s to profile and deter.”

Andy Miller, an Omaha resident shopping Friday at a mall near Von Maur, doubted that adding more guards or metal detectors would have much impact — except possibly to inconvenience law-abiding customers.

“That would be a waste of time,” Miller said. “He could shoot people out in the parking lot. What difference would it make?”

Ellin Bloch, a Los Angeles-based psychologist who specializes in traumatic stress, suggested that most Americans would oppose more intrusive security at malls.

“When these things happen, people get anxious for a while and then it dissipates over a period of time, unless there’s a copycat,” she said. “People really want to have a feeling of some freedom. ... We have an illusion that we’re safe, and we have to retain that illusion, just for the sake of survival.”