Familiar questions after shooting near Capitol

Petula Dvorak
Columnist October 3, 2013

It’s getting too familiar.

Gunfire. Sirens. Tweets. “Are you okay?” calls. “We’re all okay” updates.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Twice in the past few weeks, my Capitol Hill neighborhood has been locked down.

On Thursday afternoon, I heard a bunch of sirens. Nothing new. Then there was a roar of gunfire, like a jet engine right outside my window. I had to stop and stick my head out the window to make sure it was what I thought it was. Then, pop-pop. Two more. Gunfire, for sure.

People were running down my street, away from the mayhem. A guy asked if he could shelter in my house.

Police had a confrontation with a woman in a black car and engaged in a brief car chase with her before shots were fired outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday. (Thomas LeGro/The Washington Post)

Sorry, dude, I told him, as I ran toward the gunshots to start reporting.

But I had to stop for a second to text the babysitter: “Don’t bring the kids home. Stay away from here.”

We still don’t know much about the driver who tried to ram the White House gates with a 1-year-old in her car, then led a chase through the nation’s capital until she was stopped and killed by police officers. Police say the car was registered to Miriam Carey, a 34-year-old dental hygienist from Stamford, Conn.

Did Carey, who officials think was driving the car, have mental health issues? That wouldn’t be a surprise. What made this confrontation unusual was that she apparently wasn’t doing the shooting. Police were. Luckily, the child was in good condition, police said, and in protective custody afterward.

So how do we process this one?

Just last month, schools were on high alert and doors were locked tight when Aaron Alexis walked into the Washington Navy Yard and killed 12 people.

That bloodshed was quickly categorized and filed away: workplace violence, mental illness, guns. We covered the bases quickly, and the nation moved on.

Now, another incident in a city already on edge from a mass shooting and a government shutdown. We live in an age of hypervigilance, color-coded alerts and intruder drills.

Our home is next to one of the biggest terrorist targets in the free world. That shiny Capitol dome, full of maddening people bringing our government to a halt, is a tantalizing object to attack.

If we tried to escape, where would we move?

To Connecticut, to a quiet, sweet little community like Newtown?

Or how about the mountains? Aurora, Colo.?

Or the rolling hills of Blacksburg? Near Virginia Tech?

My husband likes the desert. How about Tucson?

You get my point.

When the shots are fired, the cameras roll and we go on red alert, we already have a series of questions we ask and we go through the list: Terrorism? Lone wolf? Workplace violence? Mental illness?

Whatever the case, whatever the root cause of the tragedy, we now have a vocabulary, a routine we go through to get to the bottom of each act of violence, so we can go back to our lives.

And each time, we find some reason why it won’t touch us.

Oh, it was an isolated incident in a bad neighborhood. Our neighborhood is safe. Well, it was workplace violence. We have security guards at our office. It was a school. We have locks on the doors, right?

The latest incident occurred in the nation’s capital, a fortress of a city with 30 police forces, a blanket no-fly zone and barricades all over the place.

The truth is, bad things happen everywhere. And is it just me, or are they happening more?

Each time there is a violent outburst, we begin talking about gun control. Then we get mired in details like magazines and clips and size and background checks. And we back off.

When Alexis walked into the Navy Yard last month, we quickly turned the conversation away from gun control and to the issue of mental illness and the access Americans may or may not have to treatment.

But within a couple of days, that conversation died and our leaders decided to shut down the government because of a fundamental disagreement on what? Oh yeah, health care. A handful of leaders — many of whom oppose tighter gun control — don’t like a plan that eventually makes access to mental health care more accessible and more affordable.

And so we come back to the incident in Washington on Thursday.

A woman with a kid in her car who rams the White House gates must be troubled in some way.

Our hypervigilance on security worked. No one else was hurt. But what about our hypervigilance when it comes to mental health?Were people coming out in force to help this woman before she acted?

We can do better. On so many fronts.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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