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McCabe: The mass shooting America barely noticed

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

What number of dead here would it have taken to give the nation pause? Twelve people were fatally shot at the Navy Yard in Washington last week, and America hardly noticed.

President Barack Obama perfunctorily noted that "yet another mass shooting" had occurred. He required no moment to get control of his emotions, as he had at the lectern after the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. Perhaps because he knew that the massacre of 20 children and six educators, and his subsequent attempts to jump-start the gun-control debate, changed nothing when it came to meaningful violence prevention.He knows that our country is still beholden to a Congress that blanches at the thought of an unfavorable NRA voting record while it tries more than 40 times to repeal a law making affordable mental health care available to those who desperately need it.

In the first hours after the shootings, Major League Baseball thought it might hold a game a few blocksaway. I'd like to believe that dignity and reason and compassion prevailed in the late afternoon, when the game was postponed, but my gut tells me it was just logistics. No worries, sports fans: There was doubleheader on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of the usual. A poor performance at the gym lamented. Pictures of a pretty sunset snapped. Dinner plans debated. People continued to argue about the new Miss America.

I e-mailed a friend in North Carolina, asking if I just didn't have a sense of how shaken the rest of the country was by what had happened. Maybe it was like when a bomb goes off and those at the impact site are rendered temporarily deaf to the chaos around them, I said.

No, he replied, there really isn't any noise.

To an extent, I was just as guilty. I went home and giggled through some silly games with my daughter before tucking her in. I didn't hold her endlessly – terrified, broken – as I did after Newtown. I kissed her on the head and, after a few lullabies, I walked out of the room and watched some television. I fell asleep easily. I was not unbothered or unmindful of what had transpired that day. But unlike after Newtown – where children my daughter's age had died horrifically – I was not unglued.

When violence of this magnitude happens in your city and you are unscathed, relief sets in – it wasn't you. But the next day, it hit me harder. I learned that my coworker's cousin was killed at the Navy Yard. And that my daughter's teacher spent the day panicked because her husband works two floors below where Aaron Alexis perched and took aim.

Unless you know us, the men and women who work and live in Washington are considered faceless, pointless bureaucrats. We pay taxes, yet do not have a vote in Congress. Our work and our city are held up as symbols of everything wrong with politics, government and media. Tourists from "Real America" ask us for directions on the subway or to snap a photo of their family in front of a landmark. Then they go home and talk about how terrible Washington is.

Nice to meet you, too.

Mark Leibovich, a New York Times writer, just sold a lot of books by reducing us to a catchphrase: "This Town." That he opened the book by making fun of a man's funeral here spoke volumes and foreshadowed the non-reaction to what happened this past week.

When 12 people are massacred in the District, it's not people dying in Real America. The nation does not stand "D.C. Strong." Facebook profile pictures do not become ribbons. Phones do not ring off the hook, just to be sure we're doing okay.

After Hurricane Katrina, everyone who'd ever sucked down a drink on Bourbon Street claimed the Big Easy as their home. When 12 people are shot dead in This Town, our nation shrugs collectively and offers justifications for its apathy. There were no children involved. It wasn't in a part of the city familiar to outsiders. It wasn't at a nationally known and revered event, like the Boston Marathon. It was in a military building, not a commercial workplace. It didn't affect thousands like a natural disaster. More people die in tragic circumstances around the globe every day. It all translates to: "There are viable reasons we don't care too much."

Beyond the Beltway, Americans can be forgiven for not knowing the geography of the city. For not knowing that everything here happens within a few miles. That the site of the massacre is about a block from a park where kids splash in a fountain.

What cannot be forgiven is the dehumanization of atown and the uninterest when 12 people who work there do not make it home.

• Cynthia McCabe, a local author, writes the Brunch Bird blog, where a version of this piece first appeared.

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