The existential toll of confronting evil

Dear President Biden,

I probably would have been just as moved, just as saddened and angered by DC police officer Jeffrey Smith’s death by suicide after the insurrection if he and his wife were going to celebrate their 2nd wedding anniversary today instead of February 2nd – the same day Laura and I celebrated our 9th (state sanctioned) anniversary. There’s something, though, that tugs at the heart a little more when you find out you have such a milestone date in common and that while it was a happy day for us, it was a tragic day for Smith’s wife, Erin. February 2nd 2019 was a Saturday, a pretty standard day of the week on which to get married so maybe it was just the date that worked out best. But maybe they too thought that Groundhog Day with its absurd shadow/no shadow, endless winter/early spring, déjà vu all over again questions was a good day upon which to tie the knot.

The WP article about Officer Smith’s death doesn’t indicate whether he left a note before he shot himself in the head explaining his decision. Of course, even if he did leave a note, it could have been something as simple as “Dear Erin, I’m so sorry. I love you. Jeff.” We don’t know exactly what was haunting him or what pushed him over the edge, though his wife’s conclusion is that it was the prospect of returning to work that tipped the scale the wrong way. He killed himself on the way to work on his first day back. But what made returning to work something so awful that shooting himself ended up being the only option in front of him?

Another officer who’s struggling emotionally in the aftermath of the siege has reportedly said that what happened at the Capitol that day was scarier than anything he encountered during his two tours in Iraq. And yet another has turned in her gun for her own protection while we all know that Officer Liebengood also killed himself after having been part of the police presence that tried to defend the Capitol and its inhabitants that day. What the hell?

I’m sure there are suicide experts out there who could speak intelligently about what it might be about the insurrection that has proved so toxic and lethal for police officers in the after times. I hoped the literature on psychological autopsies might shed some light so I did a quick perusal of the reviews in that area. In case you aren’t familiar with them, psychological autopsies involve combing through medical records, evaluating suicide notes, and interviewing family and friends of the deceased. Such studies are inexact and probabilistic and generally point to recent interpersonal conflicts, mental illness, substance abuse, and financial problems – issues that are obviously not at all unique to people who take their own lives.

Perhaps Smith and Liebengood had some of these stressors going on and the additional strain of having been attacked by a right-wing mob was just too much to bear. Essentially, it seems to me that what happened to them – and to everyone protecting or inside the Capitol that day – was a massive hate crime. Usually hate crimes target people who are members of minority groups (e.g., racial, ethnic, LGBTQ+, disabled), but I think the venomous attacks on police and the hunting of Democrats (plus Pence) count too. The American Psychological Association says that being a victim of a hate crime is more likely to lead to PTSD, depression, anxiety, and anger than being the victim of a crime that doesn’t involve being targeted for who you are.

And then there’s the existential toll of coming face-to-face with a mass of pure evil driven by fury that was whipped up by lies and unfounded grievances, evil that left the premises triumphant and unrepentant, evil that’s not even close to finished with US.

May we be safe from hate and evil and the despair they can so easily instill.
May we be willing to buffer one another from such existential traumas as best we can.
May we not pretend to be strong or stoic when we’re hurting.
May we accept that we have to hold the canaries in our collective coalmine tenderly.

Tracy Simpson

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