When I was growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, my parents told me about unsafe neighborhoods. I was not to go there, especially at night, because I could get shot and killed. Those were the high-crime, drug-dealing neighborhoods where uneducated minorities lived. Television news, which reported crime in these neighborhoods, reinforced the racist stereotypes in our suburban minds. White people, if they valued their lives, would stay in their "safe" enclaves.
The "Beltway shooter," as the media have called him, has changed all that. His (or their) killing spree is no respecter of geography, race or class. He is an equal-opportunity murderer. There are no safe neighborhoods now.
What is amazing to watch and experience, for I still live here, is how something like this can so grip a region. Still wounded after Sept. 11, Washingtonians, as we call ourselves even if we don't live in the city, are afraid. The newspapers, radio and television tell of people who put the gas nozzle in their tanks and then run inside the station until the pump cuts off. Several of the victims have been shot down while pumping gas.
Local radio stations announce the lengthening list of closings and cancellations as if a snowstorm had struck the town. High school football games are canceled. During the school week, all outdoor activities, including recess, gym and field trips, are canceled. Walks to raise funds to cure breast cancer, AIDS and other afflictions are off. School doors are locked during the week, and all visitors are monitored.
Even SAT tests were not given last weekend. Trips by school kids and other groups to the nation's capital have been canceled, further wounding an economy that has only recently begun to recover following 9/11. In suburban Philadelphia's West Chester School District, the Washington-area shootings prompted a safety committee formed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to cancel a trip for 100 elementary school students to the Baltimore Aquarium. David Flamer, the district's director of elementary education, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, "What we found is that the problem is so random, with these shootings all being in the I-95 corridor, we decided to err on the side of caution. I wouldn't want to be the individual to have to report to a parent that something unfortunate happened to a child."
Police are searching for a particular white van, and so am I. As I drive, I engage in vehicle profiling. My eyes scan the road like a radar detector, not looking for speeders or bad drivers, but for what police say is a small white truck that may contain the shooter and a possible accomplice. Emerging from my home, I see a vehicle that fits the description parked on the street. A police officer is inspecting it. The vehicle is not the one.
So far, the usual suspects who connect culture to behavior have not been heard from, though undoubtedly they will speak when the killer is caught. There will be cries from anti-gun groups for tougher laws, though the tough laws already on the books didn't prevent these multiple tragedies. Perhaps the killer likes violent video games or is a consumer of pornography. Maybe he's a combat veteran who went nuts with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Or maybe he is just plain evil. We like explanations. It helps us with "closure" and"moving on."
But there can be no moving on from this. Some have thought that 9/11 was an aberration. Now the president speaks of Saddam's unmanned aerial vehicles that can rain down biological and chemical death, which would kill thousands, maybe millions. The shooter has only added to that unease in a region and a country that once believed security came from two oceans, friendly neighbors and the belief that crime occurred mostly in "the ghetto."
The terrorists began changing our sense of safety. The shooter is finishing the job. There are no safe neighborhoods anymore.