Amid the mayhem sown by al-Qaida, the nerve-racking debate over villains Iraqi, North Korean or otherwise, there comes now a timely reminder from our nation’s capital that not all monsters live abroad.
With the precision and calculation of a military professional, someone or group of someones is killing Americans one-by-one as they make their daily rounds, loading packages into an SUV, gassing up a car or carrying books and a lunch into school. The attacks come often and differ little in their most important particular: the victims. None appears to be chosen for who they are or what they do. The victim, in short, is you.
The complete helplessness of Maryland and Virginia-area law enforcement simply underscores what a determined figure can do. What a mockery these attacks make of the color-coded homeland security system instituted last year to give the public some sense of the level of national terrorist threat they live under. Three weeks of random murders are terrorizing the Washington area in a way no band of Islamic lunatics could likely manage.
In a nation all too willing to write off Sept. 11 as a freak occurrence — a nation now more than ever convinced that it is the rest of the world that is sick — the evil within somehow seems to get filed in a separate emotional drawer. The one marked “filthy foreigners” is full, so this one goes in “murderous nuts.” It could turn out these killings are the work of a very professional team of foreign terrorists, but the dialogue underway with police, and the revelation this week that a ransom payment has been demanded, tend to suggest that this guy (or guys) — like that great decorated Gulf War veteran Tim McVeigh — is a product of our own social dysfunction.
SILENT BUT DEADLY
Still, the approach to these attacks, when contrasted with the global mobilization against al-Qaida, is worth pondering. The Economist, the British magazine, notes sagely in its most recent edition the difference between the response adopted by President Bush after Sept. 11, 2001 — go about your lives, don’t let the terrorists win — and the timidity of leadership on display now in the capital region. Bush pledged “the full resources” of the federal government on Wednesday, but only after a hue and cry from the public.
No one could expect the tormented sheriffs and other lawmen of Virginia and Maryland to provide the calm leadership yearned for in those states. That job belongs to elected leaders - the governors, senators and representatives, as well as those running against them in this election year. Such leadership might have neutralized the panic and paralysis and media hype that sociopaths feed on. Imagine how satisfying, inspiring and energizing it has been for the sniper to watch as his single bullets cause an entire region to hit the dirt.
Unfortunately, that genie flew long ago, when schools and communities began canceling outdoor sporting events and not a single politician (prove me wrong here, readers, please) had the guts to stand up and talk eloquently to people in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia as Rudolph Giuliani and Bush did after Sept. 11.
Instead, we get nationally televised news conferences by grim-faced lawmen pleading for a dialogue with the murderer. Let all those politicians filling our airwaves with campaign distortions about their opponents take notice: Chief Moose is calling for backup. Help the man. Do your job, show some leadership or get out of office.
With America all fired up for war on several fronts, someone should be posing the obvious question at home: Can we summon up similar resolve to address the causes of this kind of homefront terrorism? Can we launch a war on murder? Or do we still feel safer knowing that any of the sniper’s victims had the right to own their own .223-caliber rifle for self-defense? (If all those people in the Home Depot parking lot had been armed, would the guy have escaped?) Will the public rush, in a year or so, to watch the thinly veiled Hollywood production of “Sniper: Terror in the Heartland?” Will parents just shrug and shake their heads next time they catch their boys playing “Hitman 2” on a Sony Playstation?
It might strike people in the capital region as easy — or arrogant — for a journalist in the New York area to dispense such advice. There is no sniper here picking us off as we head for work or school. Yet, despite all the efforts of media and law enforcement to draw a clear distinction between the sniper attacks and terrorism, the two really are the same. What better word to describe how the capital is feeling than “terrorized?”
And so it is from that perspective that I feel somewhat qualified to offer just a small bit of advice, gleaned by watching New Yorkers ascend to their offices in the sky each day despite their fears, at memorial services for friends killed in the Sept. 11 attacks and in the not-innocent-enough questions my two children have asked me about death over the past year and six weeks.
By all means, take steps that calm your fears and safeguard your family. But don’t take your cues from those who let insurance liability or job security outweigh common sense. Life is fragile, yes, but like anything fragile, it is not worth having if it is packed away in a box in your basement. Your bathtub and car, statistically speaking, still are more dangerous than the sniper. Live defiantly, and make sure your children see that in you, too. Who knows what is ahead of us? Whatever it is, you can be sure you will feel better looking back on a life that gave no quarter to murderers, whether they be foreign-born or the boy next door.
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