Navy Yard shootings: Murder By the Dozen

September 17, 2013

Please read the mini-profiles of the middle-aged people who went to work Monday morning at the Navy Yard and never came home. This tragedy reminds us that misfortune has a random element, that there are malign forces that can come out of nowhere, and the very last thing you do on Earth might be going to the cafeteria for your morning cup of coffee. Does that give anyone else a chill?

The NRA’s position on mass shootings typically involves the assertion that what we need in these situations is more firepower. If more people were armed, someone could have taken out the perp. But this was a military base, a secure location, a place with armed guards, and tactical police close by, and what we know from the witness accounts is that most people never ever saw the shooter, they just heard bullets flying and in some cases saw people on the ground, shot. The perp found a high point and fired down into the atrium, at people going to the cafeteria. His firepower allowed him to leverage his rage and take out people from a distance, anonymously, killing a dozen before the police brought him down.

Why did this man perpetrate so evil a deed? We don’t know. That’s the bottom line. He had a couple of gun-related incidents in his past, and one might wonder how he got clearance to work in a military facility, but still — we don’t have any information so far to suggest that anyone saw this coming. In some previous mass shootings, there have been major red flags. That part of the story is still developing, obviously. But a day into this, it’s just unclear why this man chose to go to the Navy Yard and start shooting people randomly.

This was close to home for a lot of us. I’d been down that way twice in the last week, once while kayaking on the Anacostia directly by Building 197 (and wondering what went on in those huge government buildings), and then again Saturday night, watching the Nats lose a squeaker against the Phillies. (Preposterously, officials waited much of the day before deciding that the mass murder next door would necessarily require the cancelation of the baseball game.) And yet one of the strange things about the mass shooting yesterday was that it didn’t shut down the city, didn’t grind ordinary life to a halt, except immediately around the Navy Yard.

I felt a twinge of guilt: While thousands of people were sheltering in place, and numerous families were about to get the worst news of their lives, I could go on with my life, and eat my usual salad from Whole Foods, and then go home to putter around my yard, attending to my inconsequential chores.

Mundane existence seemed indulgent after a day like that.

Blessed is an ordinary day.

The uncle of one of the victims is quoted in today’s coverage: “How can you get up in the morning and go to work and have that happen? How do bad things like that happen to good people?”

Does anyone have an answer to that?

Of course in a time like this we may try to wall ourselves off from the tragedy. It’s human nature, probably, to put up imaginary police tape and stay on the outside. This happened inside a building that most of knew little about. What is the Naval Sea Services Systems Command? Washington is full of such operations — familiar to people on the inside but obscure to the rest of us.

I worry about the sense that there’s nothing we can do about these mass shootings. No other developed country has anything like this level of gun violence. We began this calendar year in the throes of a national discussion about what might be done to curb these tragedies. What happened to that discussion? I think it dissipated amid a sense of powerlessness. Did people just give up?

Newtown was supposed to be a game-changer. It wasn’t. The murder of all those first-graders generated a few state laws here and there, but at the federal level the lawmakers were unable to agree on a response. If the mass murder of children didn’t lead to changes, then it’s hard to imagine that what happened at the Navy Yard on 9/16 will make a difference – even if it was barely more than a mile from the Capitol, where lawmakers Monday afternoon went on lockdown just in case there was another madman on the loose.

 

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · September 12, 2013