By Petula Dvorak,


Helloooo? Congress? Do you hear us? Nah, didn’t think so.

Our letters, our e-mails, our goofy Web sites, poster boards and public declarations fall on deaf, security-
blanketed ears.

So we take to the sky, gyrocoptering in the missives, hoping that this time they won’t be opened only by overdressed interns who’ll put them in a stack. We’ll chain ourselves to poles, drive our tractors onto the Mall, set ourselves on fire or shoot ourselves in the head. Message delivered, submitted as evidence to the authorities.

The U.S. Capitol gets a lot of these troubled souls. This spring looks like it might give us a bumper crop of homegrown, daffy activists who pull both intrepid and tragic stunts.

The latest came from Doug Hughes, 61, the gyrocopter pilot who skimmed the nation’s most-protected ground just 40 feet in the air in his kit-craft chopper emblazoned with renegade U.S. Postal Service logos.

How crazy was it? The gyrocopter “looked totally official,” onlooker Jose Labarca, 55, told a Washington Post reporter after Hughes somehow landed it in one piece. “I thought, ‘The Postal Service has helicopter service to the Capitol now?’ ”

But no one was giggling Saturday when Leo Thornton, a 22-year-old from Illinois, arrived at the Capitol with a backpack, a suitcase and a sign that said, “Tax the one percent.” He shot himself in the head on the West Front of a symbol of democracy on a gorgeous day, at the peak of the Cherry Blossom Festival.

Just as awful: John Constantino, 64, a Vietnam War veteran from New Jersey, doused himself with gasoline, saluted the Capitol and set himself on fire on the Mall in the fall of 2013. Neighbors remember his frustration with political Washington.

There’s a history of this here. In 2003, Dwight Watson, a North Carolina tobacco farmer angry about the government’s influence on his industry, brought Washington to its knees in a two-day standoff after he drove his tractor onto the Mall and said he was going to blow it up. No explosives were found, and he did 16 months in prison.

You may want to call these folks mentally unstable. And, indeed, Hughes told the Tampa Bay Times that he was first inspired to do something dramatic to call attention to his cause after his 24-year-old son committed suicide in 2012 in a horrific, public way — by slamming his car into an oncoming vehicle, killing himself and the other driver.

When people take extreme actions, we drill down into the personal histories of the mailman, the veteran, the farmer. And sure, it’s a no-brainer that many of the Don Quixotes have been diagnosed with some medical, mental thing. And we brush away their crusades as wacko and return to the latest news about who J-Law is dating and which football player was jailed this time.

But check out what Nassir Ghaemi, who runs the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, has to say about mental illness and the reins of power and the engines of revolution.

“Four key elements of some mental illnesses — mania and depression — appear to promote crisis leadership: realism, resilience, empathy and creativity,” he wrote.

Ghaemi studied the lives and medical records of such great leaders as Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for his book “A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness.”

“One might call it the Inverse Law of Sanity: when times are good, when peace reigns, and the ship of state only needs to sail straight, mentally healthy people function well as our leaders,” Ghaemi wrote. “When our world is in tumult, mentally ill leaders function best.”

Lincoln’s depression or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mild mania may be the key to the empathy and unfathomable optimism that made those leaders great.

“In these times, it is hard to say who are sane and who are insane,” Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman said after being removed from a Union command in 1861 because of his paranoid delusions.

Aristotle said insanity and genius are inextricably linked.

So who says that piloting a flying chair through the sky, past our insanely well-funded security systems, and landing on the Capitol lawn to deliver a political message — Hughes’s spot-on frustration with an utterly broken and dismantled campaign finance system — isn’t a form of genius?

Because the truth of Washington today is that the people who get heard on Capitol Hill are the ones who park their Gulfstream G650s at Reagan National and arrive in a Town Car, checks in hand.

Remember, even the outright slaughter of 20 first-graders holding their chubby hands up to shield them from the gunfire ripping them apart at Sandy Hook Elementary School wasn’t enough to make Congress act on even the tiniest, most tentative measures on gun control.

So how — in this climate — are mail carriers, Marines, farmers or moms going to make a real difference? What are these extreme activists fighting for? The right for redress of their grievances.

Sure, sure, our systems are good at letting people rally on the Mall and protest in the streets.

I’ll never forget how sorry I felt for the woman who mortgaged her home and rallied a couple of dozen people to drive up from the South a few years back to draw attention to the disparate sentencing of African Americans by our justice system. She didn’t even make The Washington Post that weekend. Did anyone hear her?

To many in power, these passionate, First Amendment-sanctioned airings of grievances are nothing more than background noise.

The problem with these stunts, of course, is that Gyrocopter Man isn’t likely to start a national conversation on how completely jacked up our campaign finance laws are, and Leo Thornton’s 22 years on Earth will not spark a real conversation on fair taxation and income inequality.

Nope. Besides the dudes Googling “gyrocopter kit,” the conversation is going to be all about Inspector Gadget’s subversion of our multimillion-dollar restricted airspace defense system, who screwed up and how Homeland Security can get cracking on that force field dome to put over the Capitol. Hire some more defense contractors! We need protection!

That’s the part that’s insane.

Twitter: @petulad

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.