Fear in DC

by Ray Deonandan
October 16, 2002

This original Podium article was reprinted in the Oct. 19 issue of The Ottawa Citizen under the title, “Living In Fear in Washington, DC.”


My poor mother. Just days after terrorists dropped a plane into the Pentagon, I moved from Toronto to downtown Washington, DC. And now she has to put up with me living in the firing zone of the “Beltway sniper.” In fact, the first few victims of this serial killer were all felled relatively close to my office in Silver Spring, Maryland.

This is already a city of high tensions, what with airplanes falling from the sky, reports of “dirty nuclear bombs” being smuggled in, and a municipal government world famous for its crack- addicted mayors. Of course, even at the best of times, all we have to do is glance toward the Washington monument and its adjacent buildings –the Capitol and the White House– to be reminded that any number of foreign ICBM’s are targeting us for annihilation. Fear of imminent destruction is nothing new to Washingtonians.

The sniper, though, represents a wholly new kind of fear. Terrorists might blow up car bombs or wrest airplanes from pilots and attempt to crash them, but at least a kind of twisted political rationale can be gleaned from their actions. And at least appeals can be made to the government to offer some sort of protection, whether through policies, negotiations or military posturing. Local thugs and miscreants –of whom Washington has more than its fair share, having once held the title of “murder capital”– are also to be feared, but conduct their activities according to certain rules. If one wishes to avoid their influences, simply eschewing certain neighbourhoods and activities will usually do the trick.

An unknown person with a sniping gun and the skills to use it effectively, randomly picking off everyday folk doing everyday things, defies the rational brain’s attempts to conceptualize a strategic response. What are the activities and neighbourhoods to be avoided? What is the political stance that needs to be addressed to placate his murderous ire? There are none. This truly is random death.

Theories abound, of course. Is he (she? they?) some sort of unbalanced anti-hunting activist, demonstrating the plight of deer by treating humans as deer-hunters would? Is he a military man still convinced he’s fighting a war? Is he an insular militiaman of the Timothy McVeigh cloth? Is he actually a terrorist of the traditional variety, fomenting chaos on the domestic front to set askew the US’s foreign “War on Terror”? Or, as we all secretly fear the most, is he simply a bored kid with no extant respect for human life?

In the past year, Washington has survived a genuine terrorist attack, regular (and mostly unfounded) threats of nuclear irradiation and realistic threats of anthrax contamination. None of it appreciably affected residents’ everyday lives or behaviours. (Though the security guard in my apartment building once refused to pick up an envelope left in the lobby, lest it be anthrax laced.)

But this threat of random death, though statistically less virulent than even the overblown anthrax scare of last Fall, has succeeded in altering the timbre of Washington life. On a warm Sunday afternoon, restaurant patios remain empty. Joggers dart in zig-zag staccato patterns, confusing an imagined killer who struggles to keep them in his sights. Calm is best observed on rainy days when an umbrella or high winds supposedly balk the sharpshooter’s efforts. And pedestrians linger most comfortably adjacent to grid-locked traffic, since the killer is known to prefer free-flowing thoroughfares for making his quick getaway.

The military has entered the fray, offering spy planes and other surveillance support. We already persevere with the many police helicopters and fighter jets patrolling for street crime and terrorist highjackings respectively. Increasingly, this becomes a city in lockdown. The last murder resulted in several highways being closed down by police, and drivers of white vans being pulled from their vehicles at gunpoint.

Fear is viral at times, with the official efforts to restore security often escalating the terror and panic. My first year in Washington just ended, and I wonder what new fears await in coming months. Guess it’s time to call my mother.


Ray Deonandan is a Canadian living in Washington, DC. Visit him online at www.deonandan.com.