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A custodial worker who keeps the fourth floor of the Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters clean, Ernest Johnston isn’t allowed to carry a cell phone to his job—national security and all. Which meant he couldn’t call his wife to reassure her, even after the worst mass-casualty incident in the District in three decades. So after news of the shooting spread, Alston made her way to Nationals Park, where the game she was scheduled to work would soon be postponed, and joined a throng of people hoping to hear good news about family. (Eventually, she did.)
The security measures that kept Johnston and others at the Navy Yard from staying in touch with their loved ones, of course, didn’t keep the alleged shooter, Aaron Alexis, of Fort Worth, Texas, from killing a dozen people before he died in a gunfight with police. As a contractor working in the building, Alexis had a valid ID, so he could walk in without anyone noticing he was carrying the shotgun and ammunition he purchased legally in Virginia two days before. Once inside, he reportedly assembled the weapon in the men’s room, then shot a security guard and picked up his gun. He headed up to the fourth floor and aimed down at victims in an atrium below. Building security reportedly engaged in gunfire with him, and police arrived seven minutes after the shooting started.
This kind of thing isn’t supposed to be able to happen in D.C. anymore. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks 12 years ago, the city’s been locked down under an ever-growing security perimeter. You can’t go see the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence anymore without passing through a metal detector, and you can’t go grab lunch in the food court at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center without showing someone your ID. The paranoid security impulses of the federal government are emulated all over town; when I go to my dentist, in an anonymous medical office building near the Farragut West Metro stop, I’m only allowed up the elevator after flashing my driver’s license.
All it takes, however, is seven minutes of morning rush-hour horror to puncture the security bubble we think we’ve constructed around ourselves. Officials were quick to reassure the public on Monday that there was no broader danger: “The response of the police convinces me yet again that this is the safest city in the United States,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting member of the House of Representatives, said at one of the many press conferences authorities held. “Not safe from attack, but safe.”
And it turned out Norton was mostly right: The killing spree Monday wasn’t an attack of the type the trillions in security enhancements over the last decade were intended to prevent. There was no truck bomb, no toxic gas, no suicide vest. That may not stop attempts to tinker with the procedures around various federal buildings and military installations; the Pentagon, in particular, was reportedly already concerned that it was too easy for contractors to access bases without appropriate checks.
It would be entirely natural if, instead of looking for ways to seal the city up even more after Monday, Washingtonians wondered whether there’s actually a point to all the bag checks and ID requirements. Most buildings in town still won’t make employees go through metal detectors every day—getting to work would be impossible if they did. And besides, it wouldn’t necessarily stop the next would-be Aaron Alexis. “There exists no security on the planet that can stop a lunatic with a gun, period,” says Bruce Schneier, a security expert who’s written skeptically of the government’s counterterrorism expenditures (and coined the term “security theater” to describe some of them). “People do believe that, somehow, the government can magically keep them safe. This is what you can’t protect against.”
Most likely, the tragedy at the Navy Yard won’t have a significant effect on the city’s security cordon, precisely because it wasn’t a spectacular terrorist attack of the sort the country, and its elected representatives working here in D.C., have gone to such lengths to prevent. What happened Monday was, in fact, something that fits perfectly into our mental map of the world these days: a mass shooting, the kind which, according to data kept by Mother Jones, had already happened four times this year, killing 23, before Alexis allegedly opened fire. (There were seven last year, and three in 2011.) If not for the horrific death toll, actually, the Navy Yard killings would be easily forgotten as something even more pedestrian: a workplace shooting, which kills 1.5 people every day of the year in the U.S., on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Which meant the reaction to the shooting could follow a well-worn pattern. By the middle of the week, the District had already gotten back to near-normal. Traffic patterns were restored late Monday night. The baseball game, blocks away from the carnage, that had been postponed Monday was played Tuesday afternoon; the Nationals wore Navy baseball caps during batting practice as a sign of grief for their murdered neighbors. Candlelight vigils were held, mournful wreaths were laid by Cabinet secretaries. Even President Barack Obama, speaking shortly after the killings, made it sound routine: “So we are confronting yet another mass shooting. And today it happened on a military installation in our nation’s capital.”
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Alexis, who was discharged from the Navy Reserve after eight misconduct citations in four years, might not have been an ideal candidate for a job as a contractor on a military base in the first place. His employer, an information-technology firm called The Experts, wants it made clear that the government failed to flag any warning signs. “We enlisted a service to perform two background checks and we confirmed twice through the Department of Defense his Secret government clearance,” the firm says in a press release. “The latest background check and security clearance confirmation were in late June of 2013 and revealed no issues other than one minor traffic violation.”
He’d had plenty of issues besides that, though. In May 2004, Alexis was arrested in Seattle for allegedly shooting out the tires of a car driven by some construction workers; he told police there he’d been in an anger-induced blackout. In August 2008, DeKalb County, Ga., police arrested him for disorderly conduct, after he allegedly caused “damage to furnishings” in a club. In September 2010, he was arrested for allegedly firing a bullet into an apartment above his in Fort Worth, Texas, while he was cleaning his gun. This August, he reportedly called police in Newport, R.I., complaining of hallucinations and imaginary stalkers who were sending vibrations through his body using microwaves.
None of that stopped him from buying a shotgun in Virginia on Saturday, of course. A lawyer for SharpShooters Small Arms Range released a statement Tuesday saying Alexis had visited the shop, rented a rifle, taken some target practice, and bought a Remington 870 shotgun and two boxes of shells. A background check didn’t turn up any reason not to sell him the gun, under Virginia law.
For all the many things that had to go wrong before Alexis allegedly began shooting Monday—the checks that didn’t turn up past incidents, the security clearance even his employer says he shouldn’t have had, the country’s tragic inability to provide good mental health care to everyone who needs it—when it comes time to doing something to address the grief he caused, we’ll all skip right past the one most obvious problem. That’s the same problem that doomed five other victims of homicide by gun in D.C. this month (three just in the week before the Navy Yard shooting, and one the day after), and left four others injured. It’s the same problem that prompts Google’s autocomplete feature to suggest three other recent mass murders when you type “Obama remarks shooting” into a search bar.
And it’s the same reason three wounded victims in Monday’s spree were rushed to Washington Hospital Center, where they’re expected to make full recoveries: The doctors there are very, very good at treating gunshot wounds. “I would like you to put my trauma center out of business,” the hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. Janis Orlowski, told reporters Monday. “I really would. I would like to not be an expert on gunshots…Let’s get rid of this. This is not America. This is not Washington, D.C. This is not good.”
She’s right that it’s not good. But she may be wrong about the rest. The national political establishment swore things would be different last December, after a gunman murdered six teachers and 20 elementary school kids in Newtown, Conn., in a mass shooting so appalling it actually seemed capable of forcing some minimal legislation that might make the next one slightly less likely to happen. Guns kill more than 30,000 people a year in the U.S., but the country can’t be moved to devote even a fraction of the resources given over to homeland security in order to find a way to prevent some of those deaths.
Nine months after the Newtown massacre, D.C. joined the grim roster of the deadliest rampages in American history, tied at 10th-worst with two other incidents that killed 12 besides the shooter. One day, probably sooner than anyone would like, we will almost certainly be knocked out of the top 10. And when we are, no one will be cheering.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery