For the past week I’ve been talking with anyone I could shoehorn about the shooting death of Miriam Carey on the streets of Washington DC. As with any homicide — and that’s how it would be classified for the autopsy — there are differing opinions and mitigating circumstances to consider.
For instance, the mitigating circumstance most articulated by officialdom and the media to justify the killing of Miriam Carey is that the threat of terrorism is in the forefront of the minds of police officers in the nation’s capital, where 17 days earlier a random gunman had murdered 12 people at the Navy Yard.
In the case of Miriam Carey, 34, the consensus seems to be her killing was a tragedy in which police officers were justified in killing her. They were, accordingly, honored on the floor of Congress for doing their duty during a time of great national stress aggravated by an unprecedented shutdown of the federal government. The capital police officers who killed Miriam Carey were working without pay. The media news cycle has moved on, and the government shutdown remains the big story.
Likewise, we didn’t hear much about John Constantino. The day after Miriam Carey’s killing, the 64-year-old Mount Laurel, New Jersey, man, also an African American, drove to the capital city, and at about 4:30 in the afternoon, on the mall between the Air & Space Museum and the National Gallery, sat down on the grass facing the Capitol building, poured gasoline all over himself and set himself ablaze. Witnesses reported he said something about “voters’ rights” or “voting rights.” The married father of three grown children died later in the hospital. A lawyer hired by Constanino’s family said his act was not political and that he was mentally ill.
Constantino’s neighbor, Joe Horner, told a different story to a New York Daily News reporter. Constantino, Horner said, “didn’t like the government for some reason. … He said to me, ‘They’re no good. They don’t look out for us and they don’t care about anything but their own pockets.’ ”
One thing the mainstream media does not do is invest time and resources in stories like Constantino’s or Miriam Carey’s. There’s no desire to explain or, more to the point, to dignify such apparently desperate, solitary acts, especially when there’s the suggestion of a political motive. The rule is, a suicide must be labeled the pointless act of a mentally ill person. Unless a politically-motivated person kills other people besides himself, then, of course, the act gets lots of attention. It’s now a senseless, random killer act or, better yet, an act of terror.
This is basic Journalism 101. As the famous New York Times slogan — all the news that’s fit to print — suggests, some news is considered unfit for the minds of decent middle-brow Americans. Mentally ill citizens at the end of their tether are just not news. The rule is: Get them off the stage quickly.
For me, something is terribly wrong when an unarmed, emotionally disturbed young mother with a one-year-old strapped into the back seat of her car is gunned down in broad daylight by police officers.
People I raised this with often responded with incredulity. What was I talking about? She could have been armed. She might have had a bomb. She bumped into a White House barrier and ignored police commands to stop. The way she fled from the police turned her car into a weapon. Of course, she was endangering her child. A US congressman interviewed by Fox News on the Capitol steps said, “Police searched her house and found a white powder. We don’t know, but it could be anthrax.”
Or maybe talcum powder for her one-year-old.
The casual acceptance of such a publicly visible killing felt amazing. Many of the responses justifying the killing seem hysterical. The hypotheticals raised that she was a danger to others and a threat to the nation’s capital city existed only in the minds of those chasing her or, after the fact, those justifying her killing. From all I have been able to learn, Miriam Carey was a lively young woman who sometimes came off as headstrong who was struggling with some kind of emotional disturbance, possibly triggered by the responsibilities of motherhood.
Newspaper and media reports were all over the place. Some had her diagnosed with post-partum depression that may have reached the level of psychosis; this was according to one of her sisters and may be valid. Others quoted anonymous sources who diagnosed conditions from hypomania (whatever that is), manic-depression and even schizophrenia. There was a determined rush to dismiss her as crazy.
A number of stories emphasize that Carey told someone she was being monitored by President Barack Obama or that Barack Obama was somehow speaking to her, maybe even instructing her to do things. Maybe some of this is true; after all we have been reading a lot about the NSA. But, equally possible, maybe none of it’s true. Maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe officialdom and our media don’t want to take the time to make sense of this kind of story, because it humanizes a larger story like the government shutdown and makes it even more messy and more confusing than it already is. Why dignify the actions of insignificant, unimportant individuals in a nation obsessed with celebrity and power?
Who gives a damn about Miriam Carey other than her sisters, one of whom was a New York cop? They have tried valiantly to downplay the talk of her being crazy and the growing middle-brow consensus that it’s too bad she had to be killed.
“[M]aybe my sister was a little afraid being surrounded by officers with their guns drawn,” Valerie Carey said. “My sister was fleeing. She was trying to figure out how to get out of there.” Amy Carey-Jones said: “I feel that things could have been handled a lot differently. We still feel that there was maybe another story than what we’re being told.” They reportedly have not been allowed to see their sister’s body — only a police-provided photograph. The DC Capital Police Department may be circling its wagons
It seems we’re supposed to find the police behavior in this case normal in 2013 in the nation’s capital. In such a state of normal, the shooting down of Miriam Carey was just a blip, an unimportant human interaction in the midst of a much larger story for editors to manage, the circus of a government stopped from working by forces devoted to social Darwinism.
That story, of course, is about our governing authorities and leaders being patently irresponsible and contributing, one might suggest, to a social condition that’s no less as befuddled, diseased and dysfunctional as Miriam Carey and John Constantino were so dismissively determined to be.
Who’s really crazy here?
Anthropology professor T.M. Luhrmann writes in the New York Times about a study comparing US and Indian schizophrenics. Both heard voices, but what was interesting was the voices were very different and clearly culturally generated. The Indian voices were “considerably less violent” than the US voices. Americans heard voices suggesting suicide or violence to others, while Indians heard voices suggesting they do their chores or perform disturbing sexual acts. The voices mentally ill people hear are not completely generated from inside their heads; they’re based on things people have experienced in their lives or from the media.
Luhrmann’s conclusion is this: “[I]f you treat unsettling voices with dignity and respect, you can change them.” Listening to, respecting and allowing the mentally ill their dignity is better than bellowing orders like a drill instructor and chasing them down to the point it becomes necessary to shoot them dead.
For years, I fed the homeless on the streets of center city Philadelphia every Wednesday night. One night I offered a homeless woman a sandwich and she became very upset and animated.
“Get away from me! You poison your sandwiches!”
Despite her fury, she seemed likable. For some reason I responded, “No! You’re right, we used to poison them. But we don’t do it anymore.”
She thought about it, looked at me carefully and took the sandwich. An insignificant exchange, maybe. But the fact simply respecting the logic of this woman’s inner life at the moment permitted real communication has always stuck with me.
The philosopher Frederick Nietzsche is said to have driven himself mad by willfully following out what he perceived as the nihilism of modern, western culture — this after he declared God was dead. Commenting on Nietzsche’s madness, Ross Poole writes that, “There is a threat of madness close to the centre of modern life.” Nietzsche believed there was no truth out there to be discovered; instead, truth was a man-made construction rooted in human perception. Thus his main idea: if truth is a construction, it leads naturally to a will to power. And Washington’s current impasse can certainly be reduced to a struggle over the power of ideas like social Darwinism at a time of decline and diminishing resources.
Postmodernists like Jean Baudrillard like to really stir things up. The French wizard of terms like simulacrum (where simulations of the real have successfully replaced the real) sees mass communications and the computerization of everything as overwhelming the individual and society to the point “society has imploded into a hyper-conformist body obsessed with spectacle.” We have created a society that has become “apathetic because it realizes that any attempt to change the system will simply be co-opted by the system for its own ends.” (This is Joe Powell summing up Baudrillard, whose language, like many postmodernist French philosophers, is often completely incoherent to the ordinary person.)
Here’s the point: Because of the seductions of mass, computerized communications, Powell writes, “we are all like schizophrenics.” We don’t need to understand Baudrillard’s mutterings to realize we’re all so overwhelmed by, corrupted by and imprisoned within an artificial reality that we all hear unreal voices echoing in our heads all the time. What makes us OK is the realization of this cultural imprisonment.
Susan Greenfield, a popular British science writer takes this up in her recent book ID: The Quest For Meaning in the 21st Century. She similarly uses a mental illness analogy for social conditions.
First, she points out some interesting similarities between the mind of an adult schizophrenic and the mind of a child. Both, she says, “have a shaky grasp on reality.” Both empower fantasy elements with realness. What fascinated me is that she sees “an analogy between brains and groups or organizations” … or I would add capitals of nation states like Washington DC. The same way signals within brains can go very haywire, signals within larger networks of information can also go haywire.
Greenfield has a chart that compares brain dysfunction with organizational dysfunction. Schizophrenia/depression is “a problem caused by too much/too little transmitter [information],” while a malfunctioning organization “is a problem caused by too much/too little communication.” The former might be too much or too little dopamine transmitting information in the brain, while the latter might be too much or too little discussion in meetings or communications up and down the hierarchy or among various intelligence agencies or even between those in charge and the voting, tax-paying public.
It’s a fact that huge systems can go crazy just like people.
Who’s to blame for the killing of Miriam Carey?
If looked at as tragedy, legal culpability for the police killing of Miriam Carey is less the point than being clear and honest about what actually happened and were there other options than shooting her down “like a dog.” Those are the final words in Franz Kafka’s The Trial when the confused character Joseph K is ignominiously killed at the end of his baffling engagement with a sick, dysfunctional legal system.
Classic tragedy is based on past decisions that doom tragic characters to a fatal ending. Radical political analysis works the same terrain, looking into the past to see where decisions were made that led to current problematic conditions. Somewhere in our past, as a society, we made a wrong turn — went this way versus that way. Or as Robert Frost wrote about choosing one side of a fork in the road, “…and that has made all the difference.”
How does a society de-mobilize itself from becoming a cold-blooded SWAT Police State in which local police departments are linked up with a runaway post-911, militarized national security state? As the public killing of Miriam Carey should make clear, a significant part of the problem is cops and the pack mentality they too often resort to. These men and women are encouraged to see themselves on “the front line” protecting us, the people. They are pumped up with post-911 fears and adrenaline and, when it hits the fan, relentlessly determined to get their man or woman. A lot of reality can get lost in this process.
Questions need to be asked before the adrenaline rush kicks in and the shooting becomes inevitable. One question that should have been asked is whether it would be wise to allow Miriam Carey a little room to calm down. In Europe, they’ve discovered that easing up on rigid rules can ironically contribute to a sense of cooperative order. For example, easing off on the fear-up harsh cop bellowing could be constructive.
Dr. Luhrmann’s call for more dignity and respect for ordinary people sounds right to me. Encouraging blind obedience and the glorification of the police has gone too far. Police are citizens just like everyone else. In the case of the officers who gunned down Miriam Carey, jail or public censure may not be the solution; but clearly public honors and accolades like we heard on the floor of the US Congress are not the right solution either for such an unseemly incident. When you screw up, the correct thing to do is to figure out how and why you screwed up so you don’t do it again.
The ignominious and unnecessary public killing of Miriam Carey should be a human marker that triggers our cultural meaning machine to honestly consider what’s wrong with the picture of a howling pack of cops shooting down a troubled young mother … like a dog.