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Sniper Brings Danger Close to Home

October 7, 2002

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ For more than a year the burning question has been where the next terrorism attack will come from. Now the anxiety is over where the next bullet will be fired.

Serial sniper attacks have brought terror without apparent terrorism to the Washington area.

Never mind the microscopic odds of becoming the next victim. The sheer randomness of the shootings was making some people edgy in ways they did not feel even when they saw the smoke pouring from the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, on a day when 3,000 died.

Sept. 11 ``just opened our eyes up to let us know that we’re vulnerable to a terrorist attack, but this random shooting, you can’t describe it,″ said Washington mailman Donzell Cockrell, a 28-year veteran of the postal service. ``Here, we can’t say what this guy’s purpose is.″

The six people killed and at least two injured in what police believe are related shootings from a high-powered rifle seemed to have nothing in common except their roadside vulnerability and the mundane tasks they were engaged in when shot _ mowing a lawn, reading on a bench, shopping.

The latest victim: a 13-year-old boy shot and critically injured Monday after being dropped off at school by his aunt in Prince George’s County in Maryland. Police said that shooting was linked with the rest.

``No one seems safe because we don’t see a pattern,″ said Curtis Hsia, who teaches psychology at Azusa Pacific University. ``You can literally just be out in your yard and be shot.″

Psychiatry professor Alvin Poussaint from Harvard Medical School said the sniper shootings could well do something that the Sept. 11 attacks and the anthrax mailings that followed did not do _ keep people inside.

``In a sense, people may feel more vulnerable,″ he said. ``This is very different from 9/11.″

However diabolical, terrorists have some purpose. Certain targets make sense to them; the buildings and airplanes they destroyed were chosen with great deliberation even if the people inside them were not.

Nothing about the sniper was making sense to anyone.

Courtney Covington, 31, an accountant who moved about Monday with a ``certain level of apprehension,″ drew this lesson from the sniper shootings: ``We not only have terrorists, but you have domestic idiots as well.″

Indeed, many people in the Washington area found themselves living under two danger warnings at once _ code yellow, the middling national terror-alert level that warns of ``significant risk″ of attack, and code blue, the alert that one county school system invoked to keep pupils inside all day.

Schools throughout Washington and its Maryland and northern Virginia suburbs took similar precautions. Teachers poured out of some schools to keep watch at street corners after classes; the evening’s soccer practices were canceled in Virginia’s Fairfax County.

``Here in the Washington metro area, we have a level of fear we’re not used to, but today it went down to the children,″ said a tearful Montgomery County police chief, Charles Moose. ``All of our victims have been innocent and defenseless, but now we’re stepping over the line.

``Shooting a kid _ it’s getting to be really, really personal now.″

The open panic of Sept. 11 was not evident. But some people looked hard for a pattern of the shootings, some way of behaving that would inoculate themselves.

Patti McDaniel, 47, of Germantown in upper Montgomery County, took comfort in her early work schedule as a maintenance administrator at Verizon.

``I leave at 5:30 in the morning, and he hasn’t been doing anything at 5.30 in the morning, so I just thought, oh, well, you know.″

Even so, in the age of terrorism aggravated by the sniper attacks, McDaniel has been doubly watchful. After the first shootings in Montgomery County, she watched for white trucks fitting the description of the sniper’s suspected vehicle.

And on a plane trip, she watched the fellow passengers.

``I did tell my husband if five Iranians got on the plane, I was getting off,″ she said. ``I looked at everybody who got on and nobody looked like they were from that area.″

Others made quiet adjustments to the latest threat.

``I do everything I’ve always done before, except I spend a lot more time praying,″ said June Dickard, 61, of Waldorf, Md.

And Tynisha Brooks, 27, an interior design student at Howard University in Washington and a Prince George’s County resident, keeps looking around.

``Right after the sniper attacks, I kept thinking that white trucks were following me,″ she said. ``You just keep your eyes open but try to maintain some type of normalcy.″

Paranoid? ``I wouldn’t lie about that,″ she said. ``I’m paranoid.″

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