One of my strategies for coping with the insanity of traffic is listening to music. I rarely bother with news and traffic radio any more. There’s not much of a point. The route from my home to my office has only a few minor variations. If there’s a snarl on one route, all variant routes are affected. So I sing or think or sometimes dance.
If traffic is delayed by a major incident on the highway, the overhead signs give me that information. If I make it as far in as Capitol Hill, I know I’m in good hands. Every encounter I’ve had with US Capitol Police has been a traffic detour and based on those encounters, I find them to be courteous, helpful, and above all, professional.
So last month when I found myself up against a wall of cars and trucks and buses on one of the first rainy Monday mornings we’ve had in a stretch, I cranked up the new Eddie From Ohio cd I’d picked up at a fundraising event over the weekend, replayed the evening with friends in my mind, began the up-in-my head phase of writing about Veronicah’s heart, and settled in for the creeping pace of the ride. After two or three turns at one traffic light, I set aside the pre-writing and shifted gears to a little driver’s seat dancing to “Let’s Get Mesolithic.”
Hours later I recalled that the emergency vehicles screaming past were going the wrong way up a blind hill and that I’d casually registered the thought that the traffic delay must have been due to a serious accident for them to take such a risk at that rate of speed, a thought that wandered off to a distant recollection of a statistic about traffic accidents and Monday mornings. Add a little water to the roadway and of course there would be an accident. People drive crazy in the rain.
My thoughts wandered back to topics of conversation from Saturday: potato consumption in Utah, how you open the world of fasten-ating possibilities when you teach a young boy to use a nail gun, and where I would go in the world if I suddenly found myself financially independent enough to quit my job and dedicate the rest of my life to making a difference. Crazy stuff like that occurs to me when my mind is otherwise idle.
It didn’t occur to me that I never did get to the scene of the accident, nor did I remember that my new team meets early on Mondays and there’s a $10-per-minute late fee, with proceeds donated to the happy hour fund.
I was unaware that I was buying the next round of margaritas for the team.
I also was unaware that just a few blocks away someone I once knew had been shot to death, along with 11 others, when mental illness began its series of literal attacks on Washington.
The meeting was in full swing by the time I slipped into the conference room. No one mentioned my mounting bar tab. I glanced out over the busy street, annoyed that there’d not been time to grab coffee. Just another rainy Monday.
It wasn’t until I got to my office that I saw the scene at the Navy Yard unfolding on live video feed.
At that point it was still unclear how many gunmen there were, what their motives were, whether the rest of the city should be on terror alert. I wasn’t any more alarmed than any other day. MIndful, yes. Monitoring the news, of course. But not terrified.
This city and others like it are prepared for violence perpetrated by those angry enough to make a statement against the US, its government, its values, whatever it is that in their minds justifies killing or maiming innocent people to prove a point. I’ve come to accept the troubling mantra, “If you see something, say something” and the traffic delays when streets are closed due to reports of suspicious packages.
That has become part of who we are.
Eventually, as the hours and the day went on, we were disturbingly comforted by the reports that these innocent people were not killed by terrorists. This was just a lone “crazy.”
That doesn’t change the fact that another 12 people, the gunman included, are dead because of mental illness that was not sufficiently addressed.
A week and a half later, a young woman reportedly having struggled with postpartum depression, and most definitely struggling with something unimaginable for most of us, tried to crash the gates at the White House, led police on a high-speed chase on streets not made for speed, past pedestrians and bicyclists and other cars, through one of the most secure sections of town, eventually meeting her own tragic demise.
The news that there’d been a shooting at the Capitol broke when I was just about to leave my office for another meeting. My colleagues and I took our wallets, phones, and keys, in case we were evacuated, but the meeting went on as planned. I looked out over one of the most famous streets in the world to people going about their day, maybe unaware of the drama unfolding not far away. By the end of the meeting, someone who’d been monitoring the news on his phone, told us that it was a woman with a child in her car and that the woman had been shot dead. Someone joked about it being someone we know, someone a bit unstable. For the record, I laughed. I’m not proud of that, but it was funny. Looking back, I feel bad, but I’m admitting it because that’s my point.
Then we went back to work, secure in the knowledge that this wasn’t a terror threat. Just another crazy.
A few days after that, a man doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire over on the National Mall. It happened just before rush hour. Most people’s greatest concern, those who showed any at all, since this was clearly just another nut job, was what the traffic impact would be.
Three times in the past month, mental illness marched into Washington, leaving behind an imprint, however temporary in our memory, of tragedy and death.
Had these been intentional acts of terror, maybe they would have been thwarted. Maybe someone would have seen something and said something and something would have been done to address and prevent the dangers. Most definitely we would have rallied to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.
In a way, they were acts of terror. Each of these people must have been suffering intensely, again with thoughts and feelings and frustrations that many of us cannot comprehend. They must have been terrified. Yet we ignore or shuffle under the rug or out-and-out laugh about mental illness. We toss about terms like “nut case” and “whack job” because , I suppose, it pushes the problem, something we don’t want to deal with, away from us. Maybe mental illness is scarier than terrorism. All terrorists want to harm us. Only a certain segment of the mentally ill manifest their personal terror in outwardly destructive ways, but when they do, it’s nothing short of tragic.
With mental illness, it’s hard to know when you’re seeing something or when you should be saying something. No one wants to unnecessarily associate someone — or themselves — with a label that is so carelessly translated to “crazy,” or “nutcase,” or any of the others. The more we use those terms to describe the people, the human beings, who commit destructive acts such as these, the more we push people who are fighting demons into their own particular darkness.
I could go off in search of statistics from authoritative sources or quotes from experts, but I’m going to go with my gut on this one and say that you are more likely to be sitting on a bus or a train or standing in a crowded elevator with someone who is in need of attention for mental health issues than you are to be in those same places with a terrorist. Again, not a verified fact, just a guess.
Mental illness came to Washington and because it didn’t have a “Death to America” sign, or maybe because it didn’t have a multi-billion dollar corporate industry sponsor or a Constitutional Amendment to wave, we paused momentarily, shook our heads at the crazies, and continued to do nothing about it.
America, your citizens are hurting. (Photo credit: Vanessa Sink / Reuters, NY Daily News).
WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge: Living History: Write about a current event from your own unique, subjective perspective. Show us how history is something we are part of, not some external event taking place in a palace, office, or war zone far away.