The recent shootings in the Washington area, including an attack on a high school student yesterday that the police say is linked to them, has left the region nearly numb with fear. To be out and about feels like an unwarranted risk, as though the most innocuous places were also the most dangerous. Virtually the only thing certain about the killer so far is the caliber of his rifle, the skill with which he uses it and the fact that he seems to have found a way to shoot and then vanish in plain sight. All of his victims were doing the most ordinary things in the most ordinary places when they were shot -- mowing the lawn, vacuuming the minivan, sitting on a bench or standing at a street corner or in a mall parking lot. In some neighborhoods, it's almost impossible to run a simple errand without feeling the crosshairs on your back.
So far, law enforcement officials have apparently discovered no trace of a motive. Some officials have speculated that these shootings were thrill killings and that the payoff for the killer was the perverse emotional jolt of striking out of the blue, and from some distance. That may or may not be true. But the sense that these shots came out of nowhere, revealing nothing about their origin, is one of the things that make this case so terrifying.
And yet these shots could have revealed something about their origin. Every firearm leaves a ballistic fingerprint on every round it fires. Ballistic evidence allows police to determine whether or not bullets come from the same gun. The technology also exists to create a national database that would link the ballistic fingerprint of an individual gun to its place of sale and its owner. Such a database might have made an enormous difference in a case like this. But the National Rifle Association has roundly opposed the idea as just another form of gun registration, and Congress has consistently followed the NRA's lead. Coincidentally, Maryland is one of only two states to have created ballistics fingerprint databases of their own.
The House was prepared to vote this week on a bill that would have freed gun manufacturers, gun sellers and gun trade associations from legal liability for the products they sell. That vote has now been postponed till no one is looking.
As the hours ticked by after the shooting yesterday of a 13-year-old boy outside his school in Bowie, one almost began to hope that this awful event would have nothing to do with the others that had preceded it in recent days. It wouldn't have made much difference in the scale of things, of course: A wounded child is a wounded child. If it had been a gang attack, or the result of a grudge, or a robbery gone bad, it would have been just as terrible and no less painful for the people who love that eighth-grader.
And yet, whose stomach did not sink when the police finally came out late in the afternoon and said that, yes, this was another in a series of shootings that has shocked and horrified the community? This is what terror is all about, after all: the randomness of violence that makes everyone a potential victim and any activity, no matter how prosaic, potentially fatal -- shopping, filling the tank, mowing the lawn and, now, walking into school. When the police chiefs and school superintendents tell us not to panic, they are right; we know they are right, because the chances of any one of us encountering danger remain minuscule. Yet we also know that, as long as the assailant follows no pattern and betrays no sign of conscience, no one can make us any guarantees. This is a region of busy parents, parents who may work in one state while their children go to school in another, parents who assume that their children can walk to and from the bus without mishap. But yesterday, just as on Sept. 11, 2001, this was suddenly a region of parents who wanted nothing but to be home with their children, with the blinds drawn. ...
For everyone else, it is hard to escape a sense of helplessness. But there are things people can do: Be vigilant. Call the special tip lines (800-673-2777 and 240-777-2600) with any observations that might be helpful. And, for parents especially: Help children through a frightening time. "They need to hear it from their parents and they need to hear it in a way that makes sense," (Montgomery County, Md., Police) Chief Moose said. "That parents still love them, that they're safe at home, that we're going to carry on because that's what we do in this country. ... If every other evening you put them in front of the TV, and leave them alone, then maybe tonight you've got to do something different, maybe tonight you've got to do those things together. Because here in the Washington metropolitan area, we have a level of fear we're not used to."
Hampton Roads Virginian Pilot
Fear. Terror. Uncertainty. Randomness.
Those feelings have enveloped residents of the Washington area amid the spate of recent shootings that began last week. Is it safe for people to shop? Pump gas? Or even take their children to school?
Bright and early Monday morning, a 13-year-old boy was shot and critically wounded as he was dropped off at his middle school in Bowie, Md. The site is near Montgomery County, where most of last week's sniper shootings occurred.
Though not immediately linked to those shootings, Monday's assault nevertheless ramped up the anxiety in the Washington metropolitan area, still recovering from last year's Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon and the anthrax mailings.
Indeed, these shootings are another form of terror, wielded at the point of a rifle and with deadly accuracy. Authorities have said they believe that in each of last week's incidents, a gunman fired a lone shot from an incredible distance.
The D.C.-area attacks are similar to a 1999 shooting spree in Illinois and Indiana. That racially motivated series of shootings targeted blacks, Jews and Asians, leaving two people dead and several others injured.
This time, the killer(s) have targeted people apparently at random, apparently with no ties to each other. People going about the mundane tasks of life -- walking to their cars, buying gasoline, mowing the grass -- have been slaughtered. In such a scenario, you and your loved ones could have been targeted. And there's seemingly no way to prevent this unsuspecting, unprovoked carnage.
On Wednesday and Thursday, five people were shot to death by a sniper in a 16-hour span in Montgomery County. A sixth person was killed Thursday in Washington. On Friday, a woman was shot and wounded in Spotsylvania, about 50 miles south of Washington. According to The Washington Post, ballistic experts have concluded that the same gun was used in at least five of these seven shootings; all used .223-caliber bullets. Police are using low-tech shoe leather and computer-generated analysis in the search for the attacker.
But for now, this terror without face or reason has seized the metropolitan Washington region.
When ordinary moments collide with random violence, people say things like what Sharon Healy said after a 13-year-old classmate of her son was shot by a sniper at a Maryland middle school.
"You think you're safe," Ms. Healy said, "but you're only as safe as your next step."
People in the Washington area -- mainly suburban Maryland -- have been watching their steps painfully closely since last week, when a hidden marksman began, with no apparent pattern, picking off people.
No pattern, that is, except that the eight victims of the precision shooter or shooters were in the middle of ordinary moments when a single bullet struck each of them down. Six of them have died. ...
Any event is interpreted in the context of the times. These are times of discomfort for many Americans. We vowed Sept. 11 would not reshape our routines. So we went about doing the ordinary.
But then a sniper strikes once, then again and again, with most of the shootings linked through ballistics analysis. And now, the list of possible suspects expands -- unlikely though it may be -- beyond the haters and the deranged to include the terrorist. Whoever is pulling the trigger, no matter the motive, is shooting terror from a high-powered rifle along with the bullets. Terror and bullets take life, each in its own way.
Many in Montgomery County, Md., where many of the shootings occurred, now are afraid to go outside their home. Children are full of fear.
Those who are not scared into immobility are at least more careful.
Citizens and law enforcement authorities often rise to heroism in a crisis. Someone who alerted police about a suspicious vehicle near one shooting could be a hero. So too could others who have information. Police could be heroes by deciphering evidence.
Oh, how heroes are needed.
If Ms. Healy and others in the shooting zone are to feel safer about their next step, this ghoul who makes a mockery of life and of ordinary moments must be caught and punished.
Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star
Public vigilance is the best self-defense.
The sudden terror of Sept. 11 put the entire nation on alert for the most basic of reasons -- self-preservation. An enemy was among us, he wanted to kill as many of us as possible, there was no reasoning with him, and our best hope of staying alive was a collective attentiveness to our everyday surroundings. That vigilance was good practice for the threat that announced itself to our region last Thursday with a silent fanfare of high-velocity death.
As we write, six people are dead in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, a Spotsylvania County woman is recovering from a bullet wound, and a Bowie, Md., boy is in critical condition after being shot yesterday morning near a middle school. All the victims were ambushed in separate incidents; police have linked all the crimes to the same gunman (or -men), who prefers .223-caliber bullets and fires just one round per encounter. There is no expectation that the spree will end until its perpetrator slips up or is identified and is subsequently captured or killed. Until then, to step outside is to become a potential, if very unlikely, target for an anonymous sniper whose only "agenda" is adrenalin.
Money, sex, revenge, politics -- none of these, of course, justifies murder, but at least they are motives that normal people can faintly apprehend, to their revulsion, flopping around in the dark depths of the id. But to kill at random for a thrill? ... This is sociopathology at its purest.
But it also is of a type that is very rare. While the threat of al Qaida persists, there are thankfully few psychos like the one or ones who now terrorize this region. And this rampage is almost surely near its end. Too many police agencies are working the case, and the killer's behavior is too risky, for resolution to be far away. In this instance the hunted have weapons, too, starting with a watchfulness that not even the slyest maniac can forever elude.
(Compiled by United Press International)