Under the gun

Posted: Oct 22, 2002 12:00 AM
I knew my neighbors were taking this hard when I shopped at the local Costco. The place is so popular that it's usually difficult to find a parking space there even in the midst of a downpour. But last week, on a pleasant fall afternoon, Costco was sparsely populated. Making your way across the parking lot, the hair on the back of your neck stands up. Even if you know, as everyone does, that the chances of any particular individual being shot by the sniper are minute, you cannot help thinking about it. We joke about donning bulletproof vests to fill our tanks with gas. Some crouch behind their cars while performing this duty. I pop back into the driver's seat while the tank is filling and jump out to replace the hose quickly when it's finished. I can't crouch. It's too humiliating to cower visibly. The Conference and Visitors Bureau reports that "all over the Washington metropolitan area, traffic is down at retail sites, restaurants and other locations." Giant Food, one of the large grocery chains in this area, has seen a sudden jump in use of its Internet-based home delivery service. The Guardian Angels have offered to pump gas for people in the Alexandria area and are doing a thriving business. (They've also elicited the kind of gratitude so characteristic of Americans. People have started arriving with bagels, hot coffee and doughnuts for the Angels.) A gas station in Fairfax made all the papers after it suspended a huge blue tarp from the roof in front of the pumps. There are, by my count, 700,000 white vans in the Northern Virginia area -- or so it seems when you're looking for one with a roof rack and some lettering on the side. I've seen police lights flashing and vans being checked over half a dozen times. Nothing. This siege has fallen hardest on the kids. All of the area schools are in a lock-down mode. Children are forbidden to go outdoors for recess or lunch and have been grounded from field trips. Soccer, football and field hockey practices and games have been cancelled except in those rare instances when someone offers a back yard big enough (and safe enough) to accommodate the whole team. The children are scared, but also angry and resentful. On television, "experts" opine by the hour on the motives, personality, style and marksmanship of the sniper. They know nothing. Why do they expound upon their ignorance at such length? And why must they use words like "marksman," "intelligent," "crafty" and "skillful," to describe this serial murderer? Do they think he's not listening? The police finally got the idea that holding daily press conferences to demonstrate their ignorance wasn't such a great idea, either. But while one of the chief investigators blamed the press for a screw-up involving a Tarot card, the likelier culprit was the police themselves -- too enamored of seeing their faces on TV and becoming instant celebrities. It's the invasion of the placid, the ordinary and the quotidian that's so unsettling. The sniper's victims were all engaged in the commonplace activities of daily life: filling their gas tanks, mowing the lawn, shopping at Home Depot, walking into school. The realm of the perfectly safe is suddenly gone. The sniper may or may not be a member of any terrorist organization, but he is accomplishing Al Qaeda's goals nonetheless: He is robbing Americans -- at least those in the Washington area -- of their security and their peace of mind. Now that the killer is in communication with the police, it seems probable that this ordeal will end soon. But these weeks under the gun have provided a small taste of what life is like for Israelis and what life could be for us if we fail to prosecute the war on terror. Everything that we associate with calm and security -- our neighborhoods, our schools and our shopping malls -- could become danger zones. There are many in the world who wish it, and most are not lone nuts.