When the things we thought just don't happen do

October 27, 2002|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON — This ain't really your life ... really ain't nothin' but a movie.

-- Gil Scott-Heron

WASHINGTON -- Is it really over? No more choosing a gas station by its distance from the nearest on-ramp? No more selecting the parking space closest to the supermarket door? No more watching the treeline in fear?

Hard to believe, but it seems probable. Officials think they've caught the two people who have been terrorizing Washington, Virginia and Maryland for three weeks in a series of random sniper attacks. And those of us who live in the area are exhaling for the first time in a very long time.

There are many questions to be asked in the coming hours and days. Questions of how and where, movement and motive. Questions about what it is that breaks inside a man -- or is missing to begin with -- that allows him to hunt human beings like game.

Questions designed to put fact where speculation has been, give us a handle on this, a way of seeing it, a means by which to draw tidy lessons and perhaps make it seem the one thing it never has. Real. Instead, it has seemed -- and I've heard so many people say this -- like the plotline from some overwrought novel or TV drama.

There is, in other words, a sense of unreality to it, a feeling of dislocation, a back-of-the-mind voice that keeps insisting things like this just do not happen. Lately, I've heard that voice a lot. Heard it after terrorists hijacked airplanes and drove them into office buildings on live television. Heard it when a person or persons unknown sent death by U.S. mail and shut down the U.S. Capitol. Hear it now.

Things like this don't happen.

Meaning not just big things, not simply terrible things, but things ultimately so bizarre that your instinct is to reject them because they seem to have been ripped from fiction.

Indeed, reality and fantasy seem to find themselves in collision lately. So it made perfect sense the other day when a reporter wrote David Berkowitz seeking his take on the D.C.-area sniper and the "Son of Sam" killer advised her to look for clues in the new Hannibal Lecter movie. Life imitates art imitating life. The line between the actual and the imagined becomes as permeable as a sponge, and reality becomes so strange as to seem immune to parody.

I mean, a few weeks ago, 20th Century Fox was running trailers for a movie called Phone Booth, whose premise seemed unlikely to the point of absurdity. An unseen sniper traps a man in a public phone booth? Please.

Last week, the studio postponed the movie because fantasy had been overtaken by reality. That seems to happen a lot lately. Small wonder, when you think about it.

We have lived 20 years of relative tranquillity -- not perfect peace, because there is no such thing, but a time that was, by comparison, quiet.

We mistook a respite from fear for an escape.

Now fear is back, and we don't know how to handle it. Worse, fear is goosed by media, which have become an eye that never blinks, a voice that is never still, a cord that is never unplugged, and through which we are ever connected to the worst in human nature.

It's as if we've been dropped suddenly onto a treadmill and now must struggle to catch up to our own lives.

Things like this don't happen, the voice keeps saying. Maybe it's time to realize that they do. They always did. And that ultimately, there is only one thing you can do with that information, the same quiet, heroic thing people always have done.

Live.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He may be reached via e-mail at lpittsherald.com, or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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