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Diatribe: Shouting “Tornado” In A Crowded Theater.


TORNADO“Falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” is a popular metaphor for speech or actions made for the principal purpose of creating unnecessary panic.  The phrase is attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in his opinion in the 1919 United States Supreme Court case Schenck v. United States, which held that the defendant’s speech in opposition to the draft during World War I was not protected free speech under the First Amendment.  Until last night, I’d never encountered a situation where I understood the meaning behind the phrase more clearly.

After enjoying a wonder dinner, we went to the ballet to see Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.  It was a beautiful performance with magnificent costumes, professional sets, fantastic dancing and a flawless orchestra.  Meteorologists across the region had been carrying on for days about the threat of severe weather this evening so I had taken a small umbrella with me just in case it was sprinkling after the performance.

About ten minutes before the performance ended, smartphones throughout the audience started to simultaneously buzz and blink.  A tornado warning had been issued for the area.  Once the final curtain call had ended, the house lights came on and the theater’s management made an announcement over the sound system alerting patrons to the fact that there was severe weather in the area and encouraging everyone to be careful on their journeys home.

From the theater’s lobby, which features lots of windows and views of the downtown area, we could see that it was quite windy as we made our way toward the exit.  Moments later, over the same sound speaker the same voice instructed the audience to, basically, return to their seats as a tornado warning had been issued for the area.

This second announcement made me think to myself “Holy cow, that’s the sort of thing that can start a panic.”  I didn’t see anyone return to their seats.  They were just as anxious as we were to get out of there.  Having been fortunate enough to find a parking space relatively close to the building’s entrance, we were able to hurry to the car without getting wet.  As we started our drive home, tornado sirens began to blare as torrential rains began to fall.

We slowly made it home, dodging a couple of fallen trees, several dangerous instances of ponding on the highway, and lots of limbs on the road.  I think my knuckles were a little white from gripping the steering wheel when I finally turned off the ignition.  But it was all worth the risk … I wasn’t about to return to my seat and get stranded in that theater.

Would you have returned to your seat?


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From → Diatribes

  1. In our area, PNW, probably would have stayed in the theater as tornadoes are very rare. More likely to have a volcano blow up….


  2. Never lived in a tornado area so I don’t know. Would the theater have recommended returning to you seat if the building wasn’t a fairly safe location? From your description it wasn’t a trailer park. 🙂


    • It seems to me that there is an overwhelming tendency to “cry wolf”. Schools are often closed because of the possibility of snowfall in the area.

      It’s a beautiful facility … You could be right.


  3. As the home of my parents (in Ooltewah, TN) was one of the few left standing when an F-4 roared into their neighborhood a couple of years ago, and I saw, in person, the horrific damage these things can do, I take all watches and warnings very seriously. I’m sure the response … would have been rather different had the show not just ended. Merry Christmas to you and yours!


  4. Some things you don’t monkey around with. If you chose poorly, you would regret it. So, I would likely have left.


  5. Due to claustrophobia, I don’t go to theatres anymore. Once the lights go out, I feel terribly closed in. And no, I don’t think I could have returned to my seat even though management of the theatre was just trying to make sure I was safe.


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