Ode to Miriam Carey, Post-9/11 Harbinger

Last week, about 90 mourners gathered to lay to rest the woman who was shot and killed by Washington police as she sat in her car, her one-year-old child, by a miracle one would say, found unharmed in the back seat.

There were no television cameras, no celebrities in gratuitous displays of grief or solidarity. Just a few print reporters who were able to describe a simple service: "photos of a beaming Miriam filled the chapel, and a video tribute and slides showed a mostly smiling Miriam Carey from her childhood through graduation from Brooklyn College," wrote John Nickerson for the Connecticut Post.

Miriam Carey's family gathers for her funeral service last week in Brooklyn
Miriam Carey’s family gathers for her funeral service last week in Brooklyn

He then added, "the 34-year-old single mother was a generous, loving sister – one of five – who was a passionate, fun-loving cook who made meals for an extended family in Brooklyn that she considered the most important part of her life, Amy Carey-Jones, one of her sisters, told mourners."

Appropriate enough encomiums for the tragic death of a young mother and sister, yet the Brooklyn service was devoid of any reference to how Carey, 34, perished: in a hail of bullets and as an alleged threat to public safety, if not national security.

Before she could even become a household name, Carey has slipped away from public consciousness – or better yet, the public conscience. Her family is pressing for a full investigation, but any outrage that might have elevated their demands to the same critical mass as say, last year’s Trayvon Martin shooting, has been dulled by the disinterest of the national mainstream media.

That’s because, in large part, the media establishment has accepted the narrative put forth by the law enforcement surrogacy, that Carey was suffering from some psychotic episode when she refused to stop her car at a White House security gate on Oct. 3, hitting barricades that had been placed in her way, even striking a plain clothed Secret Service agent, before turning her car around and leading federal police (who were shooting at her the entire time) on a brief chase to the Capitol grounds, where it has been ascertained that Carey was shot and killed by officers before she was even able to exit her vehicle.

Miriam Carey
Miriam Carey

This narrative concludes that police had no choice – especially given the constant threat of terror in the nation’s capital and the murder of 12 people by a mentally disturbed man less than a month earlier at the Navy Yard – but to react with force against Carey, who for all they knew could have been driving a car packed with explosives. Apparently okay with this, the media has largely moved on. Any air of investigative urgency is gone. No one seemed to bat an eye when it was reported that Carey was unarmed, her car empty except for a little girl, or that discharging their weapons at a moving car was a clear violation of police rules in the District of Columbia, and could have put the child, as well as a city full of pedestrians, at extreme risk.

It is likely that even if the federal police who chased and shot Carey are called out in a pending Metropolitan Police investigation (though unlikely), the story will be received with the tepid, muted interest of "old news," and reported thusly.

This isn’t the first time that the false alarm of a potential terror incident ends up being a virtual one-day story with the follow-up sorely lacking in what we would call any journalistic scrutiny or enthusiasm. This should come as no surprise as the immediate response to what happened on the afternoon of Oct. 3 was a shame on everyone: the members of congress who gave the men who shot her dead a standing ovation, the Hill staffers had who handed out buttons reading "Thank you Capitol Police," the reporters who jumped to all sorts of conclusions about the "crazed woman" ramming the gates of the White House, not to mention the rush to judgment all over the Internet about how Carey deserved to die because she was using her "vehicle as a weapon" and was so stupid as to drive erratically and defy police in such a heavily secured and sensitive area as the nation’s capital.

[That position – that Carey had somehow asked for it – was taken up by those on both the Left and Right, by the way – just look here at what some of the regulars on the so-called liberal Daily Kos had to say as the tragedy was still unfolding.]

"What else could the police do? Wish the outcome could have been different, but sometimes their (sic) is no good outcome," declared "auapplemac" in the wake of the shooting.

Let us for a moment imagine that Carey was an agent of fate, sent to warn us that if we don’t endeavor to better "outcomes" we may lose our humanity altogether – better yet, a metaphor of how scared and merciless and hard we’ve become since 9/11. So unforgiving are we now already, that a young mother – possibly suffering from depression or delusions, we will never know – is shot dead in the presence of her baby girl, and we still seek to justify it rather than cast any aspersions on the agents of the law who acted as judge, jury and executioner faster than we could say, "innocent before proven guilty."

If Carey was such a harbinger, we’re ignoring her, at our own peril.

"We should want to know what we can learn from this so we don’t repeat it. But what we are learning is nothing. It’s just another incident. That’s been the whole story post-9/11," said Charles Pena, author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism, in an interview with Antiwar.com.

"We never want to admit that we did something wrong, so we never engage in self-introspection," he added.

To say none of us were spooked about what happened to Miriam Carey would be unfair. Plenty of people on all sides of the political spectrum have bucked the narrative and are speaking out. Of course the forums at Antiwar.com and Reason and other libertarian avenues with a healthy distrust of the authoritarian impulses and the militarization of police were on the case immediately. But others, like this post at the usually super-conventional New Republic, soon followed suit:

From Alec Macgillis:

Police do heroic things to keep us safe, often. They deserve to be paid, and paid well. But it’s one of the costs of living in a country bedeviled by both mass shootings and terrorism anxiety that we’ve become so unquestioning and obeisant in these moments when their overwhelming force is brought to bear—that we’ve become so used to the "shelter in place" order that we seem to remain in our place even after the order is lifted, without so much as daring to ask about the 17 bullets fired at a depressed dental hygienist going berserk in her car.

Meanwhile, at CounterPunch, John Grant wrote this, in regards to the police reaction:

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. ….

… 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.

And while reporters may be off onto the next shiny thing, the op-ed and editorial pages of a few major newspapers have expressed some uneasiness about the way things were handled by police. From James Mulvaney, an adjunct professor of law and police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University, N.Y., in a recent Washington Post op-ed entitled, "Miriam Carey did not have to die":

If suspects aren’t responding as a reasonable person might expect them to, officers should try a different approach. Use short, simple sentences. Try a request instead of an order. Shouting like an Army drill sergeant can be counterproductive, driving an upset subject to violence. …

Had the officers outside the Capitol taken a breath rather than taking aim, they might have recognized that Carey, who was unarmed, was more of a threat to her toddler and herself than to the White House or Congress. The right move would have been to contain her car and wait for her to surrender.

And from The Hartford Courant editorial page:

Was she a potential assassin or a confused, frightened person suffering from mental illness trying to get herself out of danger? Are police trained to know the difference?

The incident demands a thorough investigation.

David Swanson, an anti-war activist who hails from the Left, says what many of us are thinking – that the shoot first, ask questions later approach taken by soldiers in modern urban warfare is becoming the new default measure of our police, especially as so called "homeland security" blurs the lines between terrorist threats and plain old domestic crime (as Pena also points out, there is a reason we have posse comitatus prohibiting military law enforcement on domestic soil).

"The incident is a clear illustration of a widespread phenomenon: the coming home of wars," Swanson tells Antiwar.com. "The public begins to be treated as a low-grade enemy. Freedoms are eliminated in the name of ‘freedom.’ And people cheer for murder if the murderer wears a uniform."

While this might sound like an extreme take on the situation, consider the eerie similarity of what happened in Washington to the Iraq War Logs, published by Wikileaks in 2010, which revealed that hundreds of civilians – including children – were killed in their cars by US soldiers when they did not obey orders to halt at security checkpoints during the peak of the war. From The Guardian:

Patrolling a main road near Musayyib, south of Baghdad, one evening in September 2005, two US soldiers saw a vehicle approaching in the dark. They waved their arms and flashed lights that were meant to indicate it should stop. When the car continued to advance the troops fired warning shots. They then raised their M249 squad automatic weapons, a light machine gun that sprays bullets at colossal speed. Each man fired as many as 100 rounds at the car.

The predictable result was that the people in the front, a man and a woman, were killed. In the back their nine- and six-year-old children were lucky to survive with injuries in the thighs and legs.

The Guardian piece goes on to explain that this case was far from unique, that many deaths occurred in this fashion, mostly from misunderstandings. "It may be argued that drivers should be more careful to obey troops’ orders, but in the dark civilians can be as jumpy as soldiers…they may not be sure who the people with flashing lights are on the road ahead. If it is an unofficial roadblock manned by bandits or militias it may be safer to try to race past. They may think they are being ordered to prepare to stop when they reach the checkpoint, not slow down or halt immediately."

Ethan Saylor, killed by off duty police who where moonlighting as security guards, in January
Ethan Saylor, killed by off duty police who where moonlighting as security guards, in January

The domestic news is filled today with accounts of split-second decisions that led to deadly force, particularly against mentally disabled persons who later were deemed no harm to anyone but themselves. Two cases immediately spring to mind, one of poor Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old with Downs syndrome who was suffocated to death by off-duty officers in Maryland in January when he refused to leave a movie theater, and more recently, the shooting of Bobby Bennett in Dallas, Texas.

In that case, a video released over the weekend showed that officers lied when they said Bennett, who suffers from bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia, lunged at them with a knife. Turns out that he was standing unarmed, with his hands to his sides, when they shot him on Oct. 14. His mother, who had initially called the cops to the house because her son was "agitated," is now demanding answers as Bennett fights for his life in the hospital.

"It took them no time to start shooting," she told a local radio television station. "When you’re with a mentally ill person, you don’t just start shooting."

We will never know what was going through Carey’s mind when she attempted to drive past security, hit the guard, and fled when police tried to stop her. One early witness report said, "the Secret Service guy was just having a cow … yelling at her and banging on the car." Another said, "It looked liked [the driver was] scared or lost. I thought they might have been a tourist."

But as anecdotal evidence emerged that Carey might have told people that President Obama was personally spying on her Connecticut home, the story has shifted away from the police to the poor mentally disturbed woman who may or may not have driven down to Washington from Connecticut with ill intent. And once again, it appears that "public safety" is enough to justify the extrajudicial killing of a neighbor, at least in the court of public opinion. Esther Goldberg at The American Spectator said it best last Thursday when she wrote, "the message to take away from the Miriam Carey tragedy is that the respect we used to have for the lives of our citizens is quickly ebbing."

If we don’t use Miriam Carey’s death as a teachable moment, we will not only risk our respect for life, but our humanity and everything this country was supposedly founded upon. We owe it to her to demand answers. And mean it.

Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.