Thursday, 34-year-old Miriam Carey drove her car into the White House fence. She then tried to ram into other structures and failed. When she tried to make a u-turn to continue her driving bonanza, police opened fire on her car. Initial reports of gunshots fired, Congress on lockdown, and injured Secret Service agents led us to believe that she was also shooting. This obscured an uncomfortable fact: she was unarmed.
With a fuller picture of the story, there is no indication of failure of leadership or training here. This car was clearly a threat: it was ramming protective barriers and threatening the District. Carey was destroying property and had already injured one officer. Law enforcement is typically under a lot of pressure, and this was an outrageous situation. Vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) are an extremely effective weapon for terrorists. A low point of my own deployment is when insurgents successfully drove a VBIED into a convoy, killing a lieutenant colonel and several others. In Washington, D.C., in 2013, a rampaging vehicle is law enforcement’s worst nightmare.
With her 18-month-old daughter in the car, it’s a miracle that neither the woman’s collisions nor the police’s bullets harmed the child. Thank God. One tragedy is enough. If she had been armed, we would have seen a further devolution of discourse in the gun-control vs. gun-rights debates. This time, we have a chance to respond free of that rhetorical baggage. Like most cases of high profile violence, Carey was not well and had recently been taken off her medication. What is wrong with the way we treat the mentally ill that these kind of things happen over and over and over in the United States? Do we alienate them? Make life frustrating for them? Ignore them? Do we wish they would just go away, just get better?
Caring for the mentally unsound is a national problem in that it seems to afflict every region of our nation and almost nowhere else. But I’m skeptical of national solutions. Care, charity, love, and community are intensely local undertakings. There are, no doubt, some political moves that can ameliorate the problem, but the Church must also answer the call to act, pray and examine ourselves for how we think about those not lucky enough to just feel good and normal all the time.
Mental illness is complex, and any discussion of it risks stigmatizing those who suffer from it. Even the name might mislead. Calling it an illness may tempt us to think some people just have a disease we can treat with medicine or stick in a room somewhere. If we can’t ignore a problem, we want to be able to name it, categorize it, and process it. Alas, the heavy lifting of the Christian life requires rejecting facile ways of thinking about our neighbors. A person is not reducible to a name in the DSM-5. Really loving them, by the way, also means being open to medication and avoiding sentimental ideas about the right to self-determination.
One anecdote from Carey’s life is especially poignant. Her mother’s neighbor reports that a few years ago, Carey was outside her mother’s house, “wailing at the sky” and quoting Scripture while literally crying for help. What would be our reaction to such a display? I’d be tempted to call the police and tell myself that they will get her the help she needs. Or I would do nothing and make excuses about how there is nothing I could do and that someone she knows will probably help her anyway. How many people do we see everyday who feel exactly as Carey did but say nothing? Maybe you read about Carey’s “episode” and imagine that it would be a huge relief to let it all out in that way. How many times have people said something glib or cliche, or glossed over you entirely?
Miriam Carey’s family appear to have cared for her. I don’t mean to slander them or any church that may have ministered to her. I take this tragedy as an occasion for introspection and sanctification. I despair at this challenge, knowing my own heart’s resistance to opening, welcoming, and loving. Sitting in church on Sunday and trying to really love the people around me as Jesus loves me seems so hard to do, so risky to my precious image. What if I can’t think of what to say? I want to leave right away to get home and do other things. I’m just tired this morning.
Excuses are easy to come by when avoiding charity – take it from an expert. And take this from a much higher Authority: the grace required to sustain this love does, in the words of the King James, “much more abound” than the sin that holds it back.