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.”