Sunday, November 15, 2009

Goodbye to the D.C. Sniper

The adult half of the team of criminals known as the "D.C. Sniper" or the "Beltway Sniper" was executed by the Commonwealth of Virginia this week.  His accomplice, who was 17 at the time of the murders, was ineligible for the death penalty and is serving a life sentence.  From a specially fitted car trunk, they sited a rifle and shot 10 people in 17 days throughout the Washington, DC area.  Their victims were chosen at random as they walked through parking lots, pumped gas, or otherwise went about the mundane business of day-to-day life.  The entire Washington area was captivated and terrified.  The rest of the country was pretty scared too.  Prosecutors claimed it was all part of a scheme to terrorize the country and extort money from the government, although something I read recently said it was actually an unfinished plot to kill one of the sniper's ex-wives and mask the fact that she was the one real target.

Whatever the reason, for 17 days in 2002 people were afraid to go about their normal business.  Soon, we were all -- even those of us who didn't live anywhere near Washington -- on the look out for a white utility van.  I had never realized how ubiquitous white utility vans are until these murders happened, and every deliver truck made me jump.  And of course, it turns out the shooters didn't even have a white utility van -- it's just that there was one at almost every murder scene because these vans are everywhere.

Then, as quickly as the shooting started, it stopped.  Two suspects were under arrest, and our attention turned from our own safety to questioning why on earth anyone would do this and what could have or should have been done to stop them.  That is the news cycle of a serial killer or a mass murder -- we fear, we capture, we wonder, we blame.  We see it happening now with the alleged shooter at Fort Hood.  Most of us aren't scared anymore, but we are at best curious and at worst really, truly angry.

And yet, something bothers me about this case and about this natural news cycle we seem to go through again and again.  These cases scare us because they point out that our lives are always somewhat precarious.  We go through our day with the assumption that the person next door, or next to us in line, or in the next car, is not a homicidal maniac.  We do what we can to avoid obvious perils, but we can't avoid the danger posed by the truly imbalanced and determined killer, who could strike at any time.  We just ignore it.

Then a string of murders or a single mass murder happens, and we realize how much at the mercy of these people we truly are.  We realize that when we get into an elevator with someone we don't know, we're trusting that he or she isn't going in there with the idea of killing us.  We realize that we pump our gas on the presumption that no one has a sniper rifle aimed at us.  So we're scared. Then they catch whoever it was this time, and we breathe a sigh of relief.  Now the crazy person is no longer out there in circulation.  We can go back to normal.

Here's the thing, though.  If we really thought it through, we might realize that in fact there is nothing truly preventing someone else from doing exactly what the killer did.  The day after the snipers were caught, it wasn't any harder to be a sniper in the D.C. area than it was the day before.  And the day after the snipers were caught, the odds of someone doing what they did were exactly the same as we believed they were the day before they started shooting.  So either we ought to be terrified all the time, or we ought to be relatively calm all the time.  The only thing that really changes is how much the danger has come to our attention.

During the D.C. Sniper killings, mystery author Patricia Cornwell wrote in the New York Times (in a piece they reran on their website this week) about the fear caused by serial killers.  She wrote of a question she asked the mother of the victim of a serial killer in Louisiana:
We live in a world of terrorist cells, or serial killers, of spree snipers, and as hard as we try, we can't seem to catch them. What can we do? "Get involved," she answered. "People should notice a strange car or truck or person in their neighborhood. People need to be neighbors again and care for each other. You can't hole up in a house and not get dressed and not go out."

This was good advice in 2002, and it still is.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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