Despite its high murder rate, the streets of Washington and its surrounding suburbs have always seemed safe to me. Sure, there were plenty of shootings and robberies -- Washington, D.C., routinely ranks in the top 10 most dangerous cities in America -- but so long as you avoided dangerous neighborhoods, your chances of becoming a victim were pretty slim. Suddenly, with a homicidal sniper on the loose, even the most banal acts of filling your gas tank or going to the supermarket have begun to seem fraught with danger.
As of this writing, six people have been killed and two others critically wounded by high-power rifle shots that hit them while they were going about their daily routines: sitting at a bus stop, mowing the grass, loading groceries, buying gas, crossing the street, and worst of all, walking into a middle school. Anxiety, if not downright fear, has now gripped much of the population. It has been a year of high anxiety, what with the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon, the anthrax deaths of two area postal workers, and the new security precautions in place around public buildings and monuments as we brace for yet more terrorism.
Washington has begun to seem like a war zone, and the recent spate of killings in the area's suburbs has only intensified the feeling. Many area schools are on "lockdown," meaning children cannot play outside or come and go for lunch. Restaurants report that customers are choosing to stay home, with some popular spots noting a 25 percent decline in business. Shopping mall parking lots have fewer cars -- no wonder since two of the sniper attacks took place in such settings. People are choosing to stay home, with their blinds drawn, just in case the murderer should decide to change his method of attack.
Of course the public response is irrational. The odds of being shot while out shopping or going to school are still tiny, but that is small comfort when it feels like you're under siege. And the police can offer little help. Even with several jurisdictions pooling their resources and federal investigators on the scene, it is impossible to protect every school, much less every street corner.
So we wait, hoping that the killer will make a mistake, wreck his car as he escapes from the scene, get stopped for a routine traffic violation, or pick the wrong location and have his image captured on tape. Or maybe he'll just tire of his killing spree, though that seems unlikely. In the long, awful history of modern-day mass murder in the United States, most killers kept at it until they were caught or killed. Perhaps this killer -- or killers, some witnesses claim that two men fled the first crime scenes in a white delivery truck or van -- has family or friends who will tip off the police. Luck seems as much a part of catching this homicidal maniac as it does in becoming one of his victims.
But there is something innately human that makes us believe we can outwit chance. If only we take the proper precautions, try to stay one chess move ahead of this killer in his vicious game, maybe we can protect ourselves and our families. So we spend a little less time chatting with our neighbors on our front lawns, washing our windshields at the gas pump, or playing soccer after school in the hopes that we won't fall victim to this random violence.
Of all the aspects of this horrible crime spree, it is its terrible randomness that makes it most intolerable. Our brains are hardwired to seek clues to explain the world around us. There must be some logic or order to explain the inexplicable. We struggle to connect the dots, even when there is no connection that makes sense. In the absence of explanations we're left with pure, primal fear.