A sniper's aim

October 25, 2002

AFTER YESTERDAY'S arrests in the sniper case, everyone could exhale again, a little. The police believe they have their men. For three weeks, the people of Maryland, Washington and Virginia were living with a very particular kind of terror, and now the region has turned some sort of corner.

But toward what? The sniper -- and let's continue to refer to him in the singular until it is much clearer what was actually happening -- has taught some pretty painful lessons. With one rifle, not only were 10 people killed, but the lives of millions were disrupted and changed. Where to shop, whether to go to school, what to think -- questions that everyone faced and acted upon, and that all stemmed from the one uneasy thought that those crosshairs may come to rest on you.

Of course the odds against it were astronomical. You were far more likely to be hit by a car. But the sniper, through the character of his crime -- random yet purposeful -- aroused an irrational fear that couldn't be denied. It would have been irrational to pretend it could be suppressed.

And right there is the definition of terror.

Fear, when it takes hold of a city or a state or a nation, drives wedges. No one should die, says the thought in the back of the mind -- but least of all me. We're in this together -- but I don't like the look of that guy over there. The police are here to protect us -- so what's wrong with them?

That last thought was coming close to the surface earlier this week. The investigation seemed to be floundering. We know now that police were in fact closing in on John Muhammad and Lee Malvo; nevertheless, Tuesday morning saw yet another murder. The public appearance of disarray led to a more fundamental unease about the ability of our law enforcement agencies.

Two things to keep in mind: Cops are human, and nothing short of a single iron-ruled national police agency could have done much to squelch the bouts of miscommunication and interagency resentment that surfaced this month -- and even that might not have done the trick. Secondly, and more disturbingly, it appears that the sniper effectively turned himself in. If the story as outlined yesterday proves to be accurate, we know that there were six calls to the tip line before he got through. We know that he dropped broader and broader hints as to his identity, until police were finally able to connect the dots.

What if he had been a true political terrorist, determined to remain uncaught?

Vulnerable hardly begins to describe the way people feel now. Even with the threat perhaps taken care of, the memory of fear lingers. The rational mind can reassert control, and life can take on the familiar patterns once more. But we've learned something terrible about the fragility of all that.

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