Responding to the Navy Yard Shooting as Good Samaritans

As news reports of Aaron Alexis’s September 16 shooting spree flashed across my phone, my reaction was consistent with President Obama’s sense of America’s “creeping resignation” toward gun violence—it was difficult to feel surprised. But, as details emerged, I began to pay more attention, sensing this event was different than other sprees. I remembered another story when I read about how, on August 7, Alexis switched hotels three times“because he heard voices in the walls and ceilings talking to him, trying to keep him awake.”

A few months ago, while working at the front desk of a hotel, I was approached by a guest who requested to move rooms. Consistent with our policies, I obliged her request and began searching for new accommodations. When I inquired about her dissatisfaction, she told me she was being pursued by threatening individuals who had followed her from California to Colorado. She told me her hotel room was tapped, that someone had snuck into her room to steal her personal information, hotel staff were spying on her and dirty cops were in on it all. In addition to moving rooms, she asked me to change her name and information in the system without informing other hotel staff. During her three-day stay, she switched rooms five times. She was, simply, a tortured soul living with crippling fear.

That memory has become central to my processing of the Washington Navy Yard shooting.

I am not alone looking for meaning. We are curious people, hungry for explanations, asking: How can I fit the Navy Yard tragedy into my understanding of the world? The quest for understanding is part of what makes us human.

In our search for answers, we consider legal insanity, bullying or abuse as explicatory precursors to violence. The articles I read about last week’s Navy Yard shooting offered similar insufficient explanations—focusing almost entirely on Alexis’s security clearance.

While those are important explanations to consider because they recognize that people are not independent of their context, their stories or their community, they fail to recognize that society as a whole is complicit in the crime, not just the bully or the abuser. The question is not: Given his history, how did Alexis manage to maintain high security clearance? The question is: Given his history, why didn’t Alexis receive the treatment he needed?

  A sailor rang the bell each time the names of a fallen victim of the Navy Yard shooting were read during a memorial ceremony at the Marine Barracks in Washington D.C.  Photo via Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo.

A sailor rang the bell each time the names of a fallen victim of the Navy Yard shooting were read during a memorial ceremony at the Marine Barracks in Washington D.C.  Photo via Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo.

After all, this is not a story of surprised employers and neighbors. This is not a story of a previously blemish-free past. Alexis had interacted with police and medical personnel before—the very people we charge with protecting and caring for us individually and collectively—and presented symptoms of schizophrenia. Why is it that police told Alexis to “stay away from the individuals following him” instead of offering him additional resources? Why didn’t they refer him to a crisis center or put him on an involuntary hold? Alexis went to the hospital on two occasions, but why did reportedly no Veteran’s Affairs doctors follow up with him after his appointments?

I’m not recommending these actions because I think the law enforcement and medical professionals should have anticipated his future violence. Their motivation should not have been one of prevention, because, "people with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime” (Appleby, et al., 2001). Rather, they ought to have responded out of compassion for Alexis.

Charles Krauthammer, American Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist, political commentator, and physician writes, “For Alexis, [psychiatric commitment] would have meant the beginning of a treatment regimen designed to bring him back to himself before discharging him to a world heretofore madly radioactive. That’s what a compassionate society does. It would no more abandon this man to fend for himself than it would a man suffering a stroke. And as a side effect, that compassion might even extend to potential victims of his psychosis — in the event, remote but real, that he might someday burst into some place of work and kill 12 innocent people.”

The perpetrators who ought to be held responsible are the individuals and systems that interacted with Alexis and did not go out of their way to see that he was provided assistance he desperately needed. We are responsible to the degree that we participate in a system that ignored Alexis’s need, and continues to ignore others’.

President Obama’s remarks at the Sunday memorial service spoke of the need for gun control, yet his words also ring true in the call for compassion towards the mentally ill. “Our tears are not enough. Our words and our prayers are not enough. If we really want to honor these 12 men and women, if we really want to be country where we can go to work and go to school and walk our streets free from senseless violence without so many lives being stolen by a bullet from a gun, then we're going to have to change. We're going to have to change.”

It’s time to change how we respond to each others’ pain. It’s time to take responsibility for each other in the context of community.  It is time to reread the parable of the Good Samaritan and take Christ’s commandment to love our neighbors seriously.

Though I was not the police officer who left Alexis’s hotel room without connecting him to the care he needed, I stood at another hotel front desk and interacted with a woman who was severely psychotic and delusional. And though I worked to earn her trust, comfort her and treat her kindly, I failed to love her as my neighbor. Wary of imposing on her rights to self-determination and privacy, I let her be. I should have taken action not because I feared a future violent act, but because she was a fellow human demonstrably in need.

More than other shooting tragedies we have witnessed in recent history, the Navy Yard shooting prompts us to answer, where is our sense of duty to our fellow man before we answer those about gun control and reliability of background checks.

-Katie Heideman graduated from Gordon College in 2012 with a degree in Communication Arts and Business Administration. She resides in Denver, Colorado and works at the Mental Health Center of Denver.