The more we learn about the automobile rampage and fatal shooting of former dental hygienist Miriam Carey in Washington last week, the more tragic overtones the whole episode takes on. And now, quite predictably, a public debate has been enjoined over whether police actually had to shoot her.
The sad fact, I’m afraid, is that they did. And it is a very sad fact indeed.
First, I think we can reasonably establish, from her sisters’ accounts and all other available evidence, that Ms. Carey was suffering from a discernible mental infirmity characterized originally by post-partum depression and evolving into delusional and perhaps paranoid ideation. The condition, apparently, had been at least partially controlled by prescription psychotherapeutic medication that, for whatever reason, she had stopped taking. There is little question that, but for this severe but possibly transitory psychiatric infirmity, Carey would not have driven to Washington and tried to ram her car through barricades at the White House and Capitol building. In other words, available evidence suggests that Carey was not a “bad” or “evil” person, merely a sick one.
That acknowledgement notwithstanding, her actions and repeated attempts to avoid being stopped had the outward hallmarks of a terrorist incident directed at the two most significant and symbolic targets in the nation. Knowing in retrospect that she had neither a gun or a bomb is irrelevant. Police officers and security officials have to make split second decisions with the information or observation of the moment, and the consequences are monumental. I don’t believe anyone who has not been in that situation and has not had that kind of responsibility is in any position to second guess the decision to shoot and kill her.
Were it shown that security officials suspected (which they had no way of doing in actuality) that Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis had a weapon and appeared to be about to use it, would any of us have faulted them for trying to take him out? By the same token, would any of us have praised them for reasoned judgment had they waited to see if he actually intended to kill people?
We can wish that mental health screening and treatment were better and more more effective than it is. And we can believe that Miriam Carey didn’t have to die. But placing the responsibility on those who killed her is not only wrong, it misses the point.