November 25, 2011

When Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez allegedly fired an assault rifle at the White House on Nov. 11, he had no chance of killing President Obama, who was not in the nation’s capital. It is, however, the thought that counts.

Shootings at the White House are rare, so this most recent incident, and the circumstances surrounding it, tend to concentrate the mind wonderfully. There are good reasons to believe that others knew or had reason to suspect that when Ortega-Hernandez left his home in Idaho, he was up to no good with respect to the president of the United States.

Ortega-Hernandez, who was arrested Nov. 16 and charged the next day with attempting to assassinate the president, apparently was so obsessed with hatred for Barack Obama that he drove across the country for a chance to act on his contempt. That’s the conclusion to be drawn from the federal arrest warrant and criminal complaint filed against him in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

He’s now slated to undergo a psychological evaluation before his next court hearing, which is scheduled for Monday.

Beyond the question of motive is the issue of means.

How did this 21-year-old, who was reportedly on two years’ probation for resisting arrest and obstructing justice stemming from an arrest for possession of drug paraphernalia, get his hands on a Romanian semiautomatic assault rifle with a large scope mounted on it, as the complaint says? Or on the three magazines loaded with 7.62 x 39 mm cartridges, or the several boxes of similar cartridges that federal agents say they found in his car?

Even more intriguing is why Ortega-Hernandez was not brought to the attention of authorities when, as the federal complaint asserts, three witnesses in Idaho knew of his intent to harm the president. Knowing that Ortega-Hernandez had both a motive and the means to endanger the nation’s chief executive, why did they apparently hold their tongues?

The federal complaint sheds light on what they knew.

After the shooting, federal agents interviewed three individuals in Idaho. One, identified in the complaint as “W-4,” said he knew Ortega-Hernandez well.

According to the complaint, W-4 said Ortega-Hernandez had “increasingly become more agitated” against Washington and was “convinced that the federal government is conspiring against him.” W-4 told the agents that Ortega-Hernandez wanted to “hurt” the president and said that Ortega-Hernandez referred to Obama as “the anti-Christ.”

W-4 also told the federal agents that Ortega-Hernandez owned a gun that he kept in his room. W-4 said that after Ortega-Hernandez left Idaho, W-4 looked in Ortega-Hernandez’s room for the gun and did not find it. In other words, W-4 knew that Ortega-Hernandez wanted to hurt Obama and that he had left town, probably with a weapon, yet W-4 seems to have done nothing.

Also according to the complaint, another Idaho resident, identified as “W-6,” advised agents that in the past several months, Ortega-Hernandez had told W-4 that he, Ortega-Hernandez, “needed to kill him [Obama]” Despite hearing that threat against Obama, W-6 also apparently stayed mum.

Next comes Idaho witness “W-7,” who the complaint says has known Ortega-Hernandez for more than six years.

W-7 said that he or she knew Ortega-Hernandez owned an “AK-47 like gun” with a “scope like thing” on its top. W-7 disclosed that over the past year, “Ortega-Hernandez’s opinion and comments regarding the government and Obama have gotten worse” and that the suspect “was very specific that Obama was the problem with the government.”

W-7 told authorities that he or she knew Ortega-Hernandez was “preparing for something” and that Ortega-Hernandez believed Obama was “the devil.” W-7 said that Ortega-Hernandez “will not stop until it’s done,” noting that he had said that Obama “needed to be taken care of.” That notwithstanding, it seems, W-7 kept quiet.

What’s that saying — If you see something, say something? Oh yeah, that applies to more than foreign terrorists.

Why didn’t the three Idaho witnesses try to stop Ortega-Hernandez? Why didn’t they tell the authorities what they knew?

If this case runs its course through the courts, Ortega-Hernandez may well be found mentally ill and taken off the streets, ostensibly for treatment.

But what about those who knew or suspected he was up to something yet did nothing? Could it be that they didn’t care? Did they share Ortega-Hernandez’s toxic views of Washington and Obama? We need answers.

How many others hear expressions of hatred and ill wishes for the president, yet aren’t the least bit bothered?

How many would look the other way if they thought the target was Barack Obama?

How many others like Ortega-Hernandez . . . and his Idaho enablers . . . are out there?

kingc@washpost.com