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Washington roulette

An Englishwoman reports from the city paralysed by a sniper.

Helen Searls

Topics Politics

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Washington is finding it hard to concentrate on politics right now. Key mid-term elections for the Senate and House of Representatives are fast approaching. War against Iraq appears imminent.

But while the rest of the world is debating how best to strike Iraq or combat global terrorism, Washingtonians and our suburban neighbours in Maryland and Virginia are transfixed by matters a little nearer to home: the crazed sniper who is terrorising the community.

Anxiety levels are running high. People are monitoring the news broadcasts in a way not seen since 9/11. Some of my friends who claimed to have been untouched by the threats of anthrax attacks or 9/11 admit to being deeply uneasy now. To date, the sniper has shot at least 10 apparently random victims – all in broad daylight in public spaces in Washington’s suburban areas. The sense is that anyone and everyone could be next.

But while the random attacks are disturbing, the extent to which panic has engulfed this part of America is even more so. Normal life continues, but in strangely modified forms. Activities like taking the kids to school and filling up at a petrol station have become highly stressful procedures.

Outside schools, parents park as near as they can to the school entrance and then bustle their offspring into the building as fast as possible. Even fiercely independent teenagers are now happy to have their parents walk them to school holding hands. The normal parent gossip-time outside the school gates has been replaced by fleeting looks and occasional nervous jokes, before everyone dashes back to their cars and speeds away.

It is hard to remain unaffected by this climate of fear. It has reached the stage where I now feel relieved when I see the armed policeman outside the school building.

At petrol stations, some drivers try to appear calm and unaffected, but keep bobbing about and darting in and out of the shop to buy unneeded sweets. Others are perfecting the art of tying and retying shoe laces. Many make no pretence about the fact that they are hiding from a gun man – they whip the petrol nozzle into the tank and then jump back in the car and sink down low while filling up. I even saw one man today crouching behind his car.

Anxiety levels have not been helped by the police and the media. The police and the authorities continually stress that we should not give in to this crazed man (or men), and say that we are more likely to be killed driving on the ring-road than by the sniper. Life, we are told, should go on as before. But in the next breath, police chief Charles Moose, who heads the investigation, tells us to be vigilant at all times – saying that the sniper could be a neighbour, a colleague or a friend. Only public vigilance will catch the perpetrator, we are told; we have to be on constant lookout for any suspicious activity.

Parents and children have been particularly affected. On the morning of the first attack, before the sniper had even targeted a child, all the district and neighbouring schools went into lock-down mode. I was blissfully unaware of the sniper’s existence until I got to school and found the children locked in class and the doors barred.

Since then, no parent in the region could hope to remain immune from the panic. It is difficult to ignore all the news about the sniper when the police, media and school authorities offer advice and warnings to parents on a daily basis. After the 13-year-old boy was shot, Chief Moose had less to say about how he planned to catch the sniper than he did about the responsibility of parents.

‘I would hope that the parents…will understand that they do have a job’, said Moose. ‘When those kids get home, they’ve got to engage them, they’ve got to talk to them, they’ve got to explain this mess to them, but they need to hear it from their parents, and they need to hear it in a way that makes sense. Let them know that their parents still love them, that they’re safe at home and that we’re going to carry on, because that’s what we do in this country.’

The Washington, DC school superintendent has issued all parents with a letter explaining the new security measures and listing the mental health experts available to deal with the stress and anxiety that has been whipped up by the random shootings (and, he should have added, the school lockdown).

Focusing the anxiety on to children has impacted on children themselves. While the very young can remain oblivious to what is happening (my three-year-old thinks his teacher won’t let him go outside because of something he and his class have done wrong), the region’s older children are finding things quite frightening – and they are receiving little adult reassurance that all will be okay.

Virtually all outdoor activity for children has come to a halt. The kids remain locked in school, and all fieldtrips and most after-school activities have been cancelled. The parks are empty.

That the region’s entire parent population is now dealing with a bunch of scared kids with cabin fever can’t be helping the nation’s stress levels.

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Topics Politics

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