AS A SNIPER, OR POSSIBLY MORE THAN ONE, remained on the loose in the Washington, D.C., area, folks in the region became more and more edgy. By Oct. 16 he had killed nine and wounded two in two weeks, nailing them from long range with a high-powered rifle. Each .223-caliber bullet blasted another hole in our collective sense of security.
Some analysts referred to the sniper as the "interactive" serial killer because he apparently plotted strategy after taking in the news. Shortly after police announced plans to use "geographic profiling" based on the locations of crime scenes in Montgomery County, he went to Fredericksburg, Va., 35 miles south of D.C., and shot in the back a woman in a craft store parking lot.
Officials placed troopers in Montgomery County public schools to protect children, so the shooter went one county east, to Prince George's, and shot a 13-year-old boy walking into his school (he is expected to survive). Police by the hundreds began swarming to the scene of shootings, so he picked targets near freeways for a quick getaway.
His seemingly random choice of targets ensured that we all have a victim with whom to identify. They ranged in age from 13 to 62, and included males and females, blacks, whites, and Hispanics. When shot, the victims were getting groceries, mowing grass, cleaning a car, going to school, standing on the street, and, most infamously, pumping gas. Paramedics found the victims collapsed on the pavement, the nozzle sometimes still stuck in the tank.
Most of us have to get gas, sooner or later, so after people were killed at gas stations some motorists went to full-service stations for the first time in years; others crouched as they pumped. Throughout the region many schools stayed in "lockdown," with recess, field trips, and football games canceled indefinitely. A former Green Beret advised people to avoid open and brightly lit areas and walk "briskly in a zig-zag path" when moving from car to building. Another expert recommended that people carry their groceries up near their chests when leaving stores so a killer could not get a clear shot.
Not everybody was terrified, but people took seriously such advice. Some out-of-towners canceled trips to the Washington area. Some children turned down trips to their favorite fast-food outlets. Since most shootings came during or just after rush hour, and fairly close to a Beltway or interstate highway ramp, some motorists changed their travel times and routes. Some people outside the Washington area began to be anxious as well. We try, as a society, not to think about death, especially our own. But when a sniper shoves it in our faces and says, "Hey, you. You could be next," fear often overshadows reason.
Here's what reason says: We are far more likely to die in a car accident than from a sniper's bullet. Mere hours before the eighth killing, 10 people died in a foggy, fiery freeway pileup near Cedar Grove, Wis. We are far more likely still to live to a ripe old age. We live in the safest society, physically speaking, in human history, yet in that security our culture has become highly risk-averse. Few precautions are too extreme or too trivial if they will, as officials never tire of reminding us, "save even one life." The irony, of course, is that death can suddenly strike anyone.
Authorities confirmed that the sniper left the "death" tarot card at one crime scene. On the back he addressed a note to the police: "I am God." There's reason for those who live in the Washington area to be concerned about a person making such a claim and killing eight people at random.
But there's reason for all of us to be more concerned about the true God, before whom every single one of us will someday stand. Jesus said we should be very afraid, but not of snipers, cancer, or auto accidents. "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul," he said to the disciples, as he sent them out to deliver the gospel to a harsh, antagonistic world. "Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell."