We're all in the rat trap together

Posted: Oct 31, 2002 12:00 AM
For those in the greater Washington area, the sniper episode may have proven to be their 9/11 - at least for a while. The collapse of the World Trade Center, broadcast nationally as it happened, was emotionally huge. The attack on the Pentagon had far less dramatic impact, partly because the target was military, with such heavily military consequences - well, you know, the military is supposed to accept that sort of thing. A year ago a cliché - boosted by President Bush himself - held that 9/11 changed everything. Yet most of the populace, following another presidential dictum, lived their lives unintimidated, as though nothing had happened. For them, 9/11 changed very little financially, practically or emotionally. Soon 9/11 receded in the rearview mirror, and the flags once so proudly sported grew ratty, blew off or were snitched - and somehow not replaced. Four decades of cultural observation recall few events matching the sniper killings' downer on the regional psyche. Here was a killer (or killers) targeting everyday people doing everyday things. Millions of lives underwent major change. Few talked of anything else. Many stayed home; those who didn't were constantly on the lookout. Fear was a daily, and mounting, ingredient. With the apprehension of two likely suspects, the public sigh of relief was almost audible. Maybe one had to live here to see the cloud lift and feel the tension ease. And the long-term effect here may approach the long-term effect 9/11 had on those in New York at least: in the face of this latest enthronement of the human ego - this arrogance of the human mind - a new humility and brotherhood, almost a contrition. That's how it is in this life. We go our own ways - nodding more or less to civility as we do our own things. "It's a rat trap," O. Henry said, "and you - madam and sir and all of us - are in it." Then along comes a random sniper with a bunch of destructive fantasies and a scoped and tripoded Bushmaster XM-15 E2S .223 and a hole cut in the trunk of his 1990 Caprice to shoot it through. He kills. Even his public defender says he "stands accused of an incomprehensible crime, one that has had a profound impact on our community and has destroyed the lives of good people." Short term, he frays the fabric that binds us. He might inspire copycats, like the teenager in Oklahoma who shot four neighbors who complained about his driving, or the aggrieved nursing student in Tucson who shot three of his (female) instructors. And one is reminded of Walker Percy's comment in "Love in the Ruins" that, given the way societal things are going, by 2035 nobody will leave home without his submachine gun. Yet, as in the aftermath of 9/11 for New Yorkers, here, long term, instead of tatters the sniper(s) may have left us with a more strongly woven social cloth. The airwaves are suddenly filled with psychobabble, and shrink-think about the abuse excuse, and speculation on the deeper meaning of it all - there with news bunnies decorating the sets. Oddly, the talk skirts the seeming homosexuality and terror sympathies of the arrestees - the reported rejoicing of one following 9/11, and what that may suggest regarding his feelings about Americans generally - and the run-of-the-mill Americans he is accused of blowing away. More (maybe) at 11. History is an interminable soap opera, the sniper shootings an especial grief-moment. At the news of each shooting, this region cowered and winced. But adversity tends to strengthen. For more in the Washington region than 9/11 did, this particular episode in the soap opera may have galvanized a new civility regarding one another - a new humility in our own lives perhaps forever changed - and a sense, probably for more good than ill, that we all are in the rat trap together.