Washington was under siege on Monday, with SWAT teams racing through the streets and military helicopters circling overhead. Not immediately threatened, however, was the complacency that allows our elected officials to argue endlessly about the threats we face rather than work together to lessen them.
“We are confronting yet another mass shooting,” President Barack Obama said at midday, “and today it happened on a military installation in our nation's capital.”
A few miles away at the historic Washington Navy Yard, authorities were just beginning to assess the carnage left by a gunman — or perhaps gunmen — who sprayed the halls of the Naval Sea Systems Command with semi-automatic weapons fire. Police by late afternoon put the number of fatalities at 13.
Was this an act of terrorism, similar to the Fort Hood shootings or the Boston bombings? That theory advanced and receded during the day, amid conflicting reports of multiple assailants and speculation about possible motives.
Since no possibility could be quickly ruled out, all the old arguments about the nature of the “war on terror” were deemed in order. Obama's supporters praise him for killing Osama bin Laden and smashing al-Qaida to bits. Critics say that decentralized terrorism and “self-radicalized” individuals constitute an increasing menace. Both positions are more often used to score political points than to seek solutions. Or was the Navy Yard rampage “just” another senseless multiple shooting, like so many others? During his presidency, Obama has mourned the victims and consoled the survivors of Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora and Newtown. There was a weariness in his voice as he spoke of Navy personnel who had served bravely overseas yet “today . . . faced the unimaginable violence that they wouldn't have expected here at home.”
The one confirmed shooter — who died on the scene — was reportedly carrying at least three firearms. Following the unimaginable horror of Newtown, in which 20 children were slaughtered, Obama could not even convince Congress to mandate universal background checks for gun purchases, let alone take stronger measures to keep powerful weapons out of unstable hands.