EDITORIAL: Panic in the streets

There’s nothing heroic in shooting an unarmed woman

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News from Twitter, Facebook and live television is often not much more reliable than news from the gossips and the town crier. We didn’t learn our lesson from the pursuit of “white men driving white vans” during the Beltway sniper terror a decade ago, or the “multiple shooters” with AR-15 rifles said to be terrorizing the Washington Navy Yard last month. Rumors, tales and frantic gossip flew again during the Capitol lockdown Thursday.

Throughout much of the day, the capital buzzed with word of an “active shooter” on the loose. Hundreds of cops of various agencies swarmed the Capitol, clad in bulletproof vests, sniper rifles and fully automatic carbines at the ready. The Secret Service had something that looked like a grenade launcher. No government shutdown here.

Police spokesmen stepped up to the cameras to talk about shots that “were fired,” and an “exchange of fire,” with careful use of the passive voice to conceal the identity of those doing the shooting. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and Mayor Mike Bloomberg of New York stood by, eager to get in camera range. Their gun-control hopes were dashed when they learned that the only men and women with guns were wearing badges. They would have to wait for another tragedy.

The city slowly learned that the sad events began when a woman of questionable sanity ran into trouble on 15th and E streets, outside “the White House perimeter.” She wasn’t a terrorist, and she was armed with nothing more dangerous than a small daughter in the back seat. Her car struck a barrier, and Secret Service agents popped up to block her way. She was not a threat to the executive mansion, but her car hit an officer, and that mistake likely sealed her doom.

When she raced up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol a bystander caught a piece of the action on video. The woman’s car is seen pinned against bollards as at least six officers on foot try to stop her. She backs violently into a patrol car and pulls away. The officers fire about five shots at the direction of the car and into streets and sidewalks crowded with tourists.

When she approached raised barriers at Maryland Avenue, she was trapped, and another round of gunfire from unidentified officers ended her life. D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier described the efforts of law enforcement as “heroic.”

Not quite. Deadly force is legitimately used to stop a threat so near the Capitol, but shooting at an unarmed woman and her child is hardly going above and beyond the call of duty, the usual standard to measure a “hero.” Preserving life above all else, even that of a suspect, is the aim of good policing. This sad episode should be an opportunity for better training in how to secure the Capitol and a needed lesson in the value of restraint. First, the authorities must answer several questions about when to shoot.

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