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Culture of Fear: Miriam Carey’s Tragedy, and Our Own | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Culture of Fear: Miriam Carey’s Tragedy, and Our Own


Members of the media interview neighbors near the home of relatives of Miriam Carey in New York, October 4, 2013. (Reuters/Keith Bedford)

It’s something I’ve been writing a lot about over the past six years: our culture of fear, and how much more frantically we respond to scary stuff than we did in decades past. In 2007, it was the bed-wetting response to a visit from Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, when, for instance, the Democratic leader in Albany threatened to pull grants from Columbia University if he was allowed to speak there. I compared that to the 1959 visit of Nikita Khrushchev, who got a twenty-one-gun salute and a state dinner. This year it was Boston Marathon, when two kids with a home-made bomb shut down an entire American city. Compare that to Christmastime 1975, when a terrorist bomb killed twenty-four civilians, no one was ever found responsible—and life almost immediately went on. Andrew Sullivan calls it “Our Collective 9/11 PTSD.”

Now the shooting of the dental hygienist who seemed to be trying to ram the White House with her car. Almost the exact same thing happened thirty-seven years ago. The difference in the response between then and now is staggering.

On July 25, 1976, a 31-year-old part-time taxi driver named Chester M. Plummer scaled the Executive Mansion fence bearing a three-foot length of pipe while President Ford was inside, ignored guards’ warnings to halt, advanced sixty feet inside the perimeter and was shot to death—the first shooting on the White House grounds in history. There’s not much more for me to say about the incident, because not much more was said. The New York Times had three articles within the week, the first one way down in the corner of the front page (and it was a slow news day at that, and a slow news week). The third was on the clearing of the guard who did the shooting, and the second—“Motive of Intruder Eludes Police,” on page nine, was practically curt. “He was just a quiet guy. He never made threats,” was pretty much the only thing anyone learned about the guy. Then, the story was gone. Chester Plummer has been forgotten, but for seventy-eight words on Wikipedia.

Now? There’s already been three articles in the Times about poor Miriam Carey, only within the day—on one of the busiest news days of the year. We can know everything about her, if we choose to: her postpartum depression. Her mental health evaluation. (And, indeed, that her apparent schizophrenic delusions bore the impress of 9/11 PTSD: she “told police in December that she was a prophet, that President Obama would place the city of Stamford under a “lockdown” and that he had her and her residence under electronic surveillance.”) How the melodrama went down, second by second. Her educational history. The fact that police had been called to her Stamford, Connecticut apartment before, but not for criminal reasons. Her annoyance at taxes, and the lack of security cameras. That, “She was really just a sweet and nurturing person.”

Yes, some of this has to do with our new 24/7 news culture, always greedy for yet more filler. But it also has to do with our 24/7 policing culture—our hair-trigger sense of all-pervasive threat. Dig this, from The Washington Post: “About 100 law enforcement personnel from the U.S. Secret Service, the FBI, Connecticut State Police and Stamford police searched Carey’s apartment in the Woodside Green complex in this New York City suburb overnight, removing boxes, bags and at least one computer.”

What the hell? She’s dead. She suffered from mad delusions. She had a 1-year-old child in tow. What did they think they were going to find, evidence of credible plans for a coup d’état?

“The search,” the Post continued,

involved hazardous material teams, a bomb squad and a robot, Stamford Police Chief Jonathan Fontneau said. Operating under the assumption that something inside the apartment might pose a threat, police sent a robot through a window first, and meticulously decontaminated people who went in and out of the unit, Fontneau said. In the end, they found just a “typical” first-floor two-bedroom apartment with “nothing out of the ordinary,” Fontneau said…. As of 7 a.m. Friday, police declared the complex safe and allowed evacuated residents to return.

Which, some think, is at it should be. There’s terrorism now, they say. But there was terrorism then, nearly every month—eighty-nine bombings attributed by the FBI to terrorism in 1975, culminating in that awful LaGuardia bomb; and a veritable wave in the winter and spring 1976, much of it around the trial of Patty Hearst: of an FBI office in Berkeley, Standard Oil of California headquarters in San Francisco. Americans didn’t freak out, or shut down, or exhibit symptoms of PTSD. They had a massive outdoor national 200th birthday party.

There’s the threat of presidential assassinations, they say. Of course there is: then, too. In September of 1975 President Ford weathered two attempts on his life in two weeks—the first from a madwoman who claimed her International Tribunal now marked 3,000 people for execution, “if they didn’t stop harming the environment and projecting distorted sex images into the media”—though their wives would be “hacked to death” first. Prior to the second one, Ford had taken off his bulletproof vest because he found it too confining. How did he respond to the attempts? He chose to go out in public more. On the second day of Ronald Reagan’s campaign to replace him, that November, a 20-year-old from Pompano Beach who had already threatened the lives of the president and the vice-president pulled out what turned to be a toy .45 caliber pistol and was wrestled to the ground by three Secret Service agents.

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The following spring the Associated Press reported that the FBI and Secret Service were investigating the testimony of an undercover informant that a “commando-style assassination team” from the San Francisco Bay area was planning attempts on candidate Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford’s lives at the Republican convention in Kansas City, “designed to throw the convention into complete chaos.” The Chicago Tribune’s report contributed the detail, “From the intelligence we have been able to gather, the terror groups want to move their emphasis from bombings to other violent acts in the urban guerrilla handbook, like assassinations and kidnappings.” And yet the two party conventions came and went without any particular extra security.

That’s then. This is now. Read the outstanding Chris Bray in the Baffler on Boston:

In the aftermath of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Olympics, and the paired 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, here’s what didn’t happen: whole cities weren’t locked down, armored personnel carriers with police logos didn’t rumble in, and SWAT teams in combat uniforms and body armor didn’t storm through the suburbs for a loosely ordered set of (ultimately hapless) house-to-house searches. Somehow, though, 2013 was the year it became appropriate to close cities, turning off taxis, buses, and trains and telling residents that the governor was suggesting—okay, strongly suggesting—that they not leave their homes until the police said so. One of those familiar moments in which officials ask the public to be on the lookout turned into a remarkable new moment in which officials ask the public to cease to exist in its public form so that the police can have the streets.

And you’d better believe they had the streets. News photographs showed Boston emptied like the opening reel of The Last Man on Earth. The quaint idea that cities can be made safe by sharing public burdens in public space—by, in Jane Jacobs’s words, neighborly ‘eyes on the street’—vanished into an annihilated space in which the only players with a role in the maintenance of order were the mandarinate that makes social control its profession: the helicopters flying overhead, the military police conducting block-by-block inspections, and the local media relaying their instructions…. How routine it felt—how uncontested it was—when the pluralism of the human world was simply told to go indoors until further notice.

The disease of police militarization is usually diagnosed as a pathology of the political right…. And look how the right-wing project came to fruition this year, as a New England Democratic governor and Democratic mayor turned metropolitan Boston into cop Disneyland. Spot the place of the political right in the following sentence: Cambridge, Massachusetts, was locked down and filled with police and military personnel dressed for combat, a set of actions that occurred under the executive authority of governor Deval Patrick. And here you thought Americans were divided by their differences.

A final thought. That the 1976 madman Chester Plummer had been able to get to the White House fence: can you even imagine that being possible now?

Greg Mitchell analyzes the media's response to the Miriam Carey incident.

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