The face of evil

October 27, 2002

HOW ODD TO DISCOVER that someone as ordinary and pleasant-looking as John Allen Muhammad could have been responsible for the cold-blooded, random murders that have terrorized this region. Any effort to imagine the face of evil incarnate would not have produced those soulful eyes and that winning smile.

For the third time in little more than a year, this country has learned brutal lessons about danger lurking in innocent places. Commercial airlines deliberately crashed to become bombs. Letters bearing deadly bacteria that looks like baby powder. And now, if suspicions about Mr. Muhammad are proved, a polite, down-on-his-luck guy who randomly picked off strangers as if they were targets in an arcade game -- maybe even a 13-year-old boy on his way to school. How could a father, any father, have done that?

Once again, we mourn, we make a few prudent adjustments in our lives, and we go on. Perhaps now we add the mall parking lot and the gas station to the list of places that we don't feel entirely safe. But just because danger may come in new forms and from different directions doesn't make the world a more dangerous place.

The world has always been a dangerous place. Wars, plagues and natural disasters have been wiping out civilizations for eons. Many Americans grew up with the ever-present threat of nuclear attack that seemed so real in the 1950s that schoolchildren were taught to crouch under their desks -- as if that would offer protection.

For politicians, small planes have long posed a high risk. Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone died Friday in the latest crash.

Even so, Americans are a lot safer today than the earliest settlers of this country or people elsewhere facing famine, drought and civil strife.

Over the coming days, much more will be revealed about the sniper's motives. Surely there were points along the way where some intercession might have prevented this desperate rampage. We should try to learn as much as we can in hopes of acting sooner in the future in such situations.

And we need to tend to the collateral damage in the sniper's wake, most of which was probably inflicted on the children of this region, who learned the term "lockdown" when they became like prisoners in their own schools.

But children won't heal if the lesson they draw is to live in fear of harmless-looking strangers.

Instead, we should try to teach them and ourselves to live with a healthy fear that can protect us from careless acts.

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