When The Going Gets Whacko, The Whackos Get To D.C.

Written by Donald Joy on October 5, 2013

Things tend to get pretty dicey, even deadly, during periods of heightened tension here in our nation’s capital.  Just over a decade ago, not long after the 9/11 attacks, we had the Beltway Snipers and “Tractor Man.”  More recently, helping to set the tone for these days of partial government shutdown/standoff over Obamacare, it’s the Navy Yard shooter, crazy Miriam Carey, and the latest entrant, yesterday’s self-immolation guy, who set himself completely on fire on the National Mall until nearby joggers raced over and used their shirts to extinguish the flames.

How many readers remember Tractor Man?  He caused much of downtown District to be literally shut-down for about 48 hours in March of 2003, affecting traffic patterns in the entire area, including Maryland and Virginia.  For the those of us here who were already used to coping with badly snarled rush-hours and general congestion, the memory of Tractor Man’s causing streets to be that much further impossibly gridlocked for two entire days is still rather fresh.  I recall sitting in my car for hours as it grew dark, just trying to get out of downtown and across the Potomac into Virginia, after my day shifts.

An irate tobacco farmer from North Carolina by the name of Dwight Johnson, Tractor Man decided to show his displeasure and distress over federal policies regarding the tobacco industry and veterans’ affairs by driving his big green John Deere tractor (towing a couple of small vehicles) into the shallow pond at Constitution Gardens, near the reflecting pool on the National Mall.  He communicated to authorities that he had explosives, and threatened to detonate them.

Unlike the police response to dental hygienist Miriam Carey’s vehicular rampage from the White House to Capitol Hill two days ago, in Tractor Man’s case, a SWAT force of over 200 FBI and U.S. Park Police personnel merely laid siege to Johnson, evacuating nearby buildings and forming a wide perimeter around him as he drove around in circles, dug up part of the small island in the pond, talked with police negotiators via cell phone, and even slept inside the cab of his tractor.  After two days, he eventually surrendered without violence on anyone’s part, revealing that he had no actual explosives.  Representing himself during his trial, he unsuccessfully tried to subpoena Bill Clinton and Jesse Ventura to testify.

So it turned out that the Tractor Man episode was a significant and memorable event, but mainly a false alarm which resulted in no direct loss of life that I’m aware of.  As in any big city, there’s always some kind of drama and street-theater craziness happening in the District of Columbia, but here the political overtones bring a certain gravity to threats which can sometimes hold the almost the entire nation in thrall–which is partly why so many whack-jobs really like D.C. as the venue of choice for their displays and rampages.

Now, in these last couple of weeks and days, things have become alarmingly dire.  The partial shutdown of the federal government due to the congressional standoff over funding/delay of Obamacare is one thing, but the body count from disturbed people flipping out is starting to mount, and the optics alone are enough to cause one to forget the scripture from The Book of John, chapter 14:  “Let not your hearts be troubled.”

The fatal incident which cost Miriam Carey her life happened two days ago, on Thursday.  Yesterday, on Friday, the unidentified man dumped some sort of fluid over his body and set himself ablaze.  It’s now Saturday morning, and I’m typing this in Alexandria, Virginia–just across the river from where not only those events, but also the recent Navy Yard massacre, took place.  We’re in the fourth day of standoff over the continuing resolution to fund the federal government, and tempers are being stretched.

I’m about to drive across the bridge into the District, on business.  One wonders what’s coming next.

Following his service in the United State Air Force, Donald Joy earned a bachelor of science in business administration from SUNY while serving in the army national guard. As a special deputy U.S. marshal, Don was on the protection detail for Attorney General John Ashcroft following the attacks of 9/11. He lives in the D.C. suburbs of Northern Virginia with his wife and son.