Twenty-three days in October

June 02, 2006

So quiet, so orderly, so military, so mild-mannered; thus came the oddly appropriate end yesterday to at least the Maryland chapter of a cold-blooded reign of terror by a misfit former soldier and his malleable young acolyte who held the Washington metropolitan region captive to their calculatedly capricious killing spree.

The methodical dispatch with which a Montgomery County jury convicted John Allen Muhammad and Circuit Judge James L. Ryan sentenced him to six consecutive life terms matched what seemed Mr. Muhammad's detachment. He orchestrated the murders of 10 people and the wounding of three others as they were in the midst of the most mundane of tasks - walking across a parking lot, cutting the grass, pumping gas.

Yet, evidence at the trial - particularly the testimony of Mr. Muhammad's youthful accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo - revealed a deeply angry and delusional man whose plans for far more horrifying assaults on hapless innocents in Baltimore were thwarted only by his capture.

It was a sobering reminder that some forms of terrorism simply defy precautions. Even if there were security measures adequate to hold in check an armed man who goes around the bend, no one could bear to live with them full-time.

Local schools, for example, went into lockdown mode after the sniper team shot a 13-year-old as he walked into his Bowie middle school. Field trips were canceled, sports seasons were put on hold. For days, students didn't venture onto playgrounds. But normal routines resumed quickly after the Muhammad and Malvo arrests in October 2002.

A Montgomery County-based police task force that was formed after the first sniper killings succeeded in stopping the spree during what Mr. Malvo later said was intended as merely a warm-up before bombing school buses and sabotaging a police funeral in Baltimore. But police wasted lots of time looking for a white box van witnesses mistakenly connected to the shootings, and the arrest ultimately relied in part on calls to the tip line from Mr. Muhammad. Luck, hunches, suspect missteps; no one can plan for that.

Tighter access to guns, broader access to mental health services, better sharing of information between police jurisdictions might all help in reducing the odds of another sniper spree. Only marginally, though.

Free people will always be at risk from the soft-spoken, chilling charmer whose talents are exploited in a campaign of hate.

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