Be relieved, but also be wary

The waitress pouring coffee smiled and said: “Did ya hear? They caught the sniper.”

We weren’t sitting in a coffee shop in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, but in a restaurant hundreds of miles away, far from the threat of getting struck down by the unknown gunman who had killed or wounded 13 ordinary people going about their everyday lives gassing up their cars, going to the grocery store, waiting at a bus stop or leaving a restaurant.

Yet the sense of relief that swept across the National Capital Area Thursday drifted far behind the Washington Beltway, into all reaches of the United States. A madman was caught, his weapon captured, a reign of terror over.

“Where y’all from?” The waitress was talky.


“No shit? I guess you can go home now.”

We had heard that a lot during this trip. Tell people you’re from the Washington area and the first thing they think is that you left town to get away from the sniper. Such evasive action might have been worth considering had previous commitments not taken us out of town anyway.

But running, while prudent, was not realistic. All four million plus people who live in the Washington area could not have left town. High schools could not have continued to play away games. Life goes on, even in the threat of random death at the hands of a madman. The car needs gas. You need food. The boss expects you to come to work.

Yet the DC sniper changed life in the Washington area, even more so than the September 11 attacks where a hijacked planeload of innocent civilians crashed into the Pentagon and took even more innocent lives.

For three weeks, the unseen gunman terrorized millions. His shots rang out seemingingly from nowhere, killing or maiming with a single bullet. Police dragnets brought traffic to a standstill but he always seemed to escape.

Gas stations erected tarps to hide their pumps from a sniper’s view. Others offered to send out employees to pump gas at self-service islands. Restaurants saw business drop at much as 75 percent. Home delivery pizza services business increased dramatically.

Shopping malls with indoor garages thrives while strip malls and stores with open parking lots suffered losses as high as 90 percent.

As with most unknowns, theories expanded to fit increasing paranoia. The snipers were al Qaeda terrorists and the killings would soon spread to other cities and towns in the country.

At a service station outside Columbus, Ohio, last week a fellow motorist told me he was nervous getting gas anywhere.

“Maybe the guy is out here now just waiting for a clean shot,” he said as he glanced around. “Who knows for sure?”

Reality set back in at 1 a.m. Thursday when a Kentucky truck driver drove into a rest stop on I-70 near Fredrick, Maryland, and saw a blue Chevy Caprice with New Jersey plates, matching a description broadcast by police just hours earlier. He called 911 and police descended, arresting 42-year-old John Alvin Muhammad and 17-year-old John Malvo. A .223 Bushmaster rifle found in the car matched the ballistics of 11 of the 13 shootings.

Prosecutors from Maryland, Virginia and DC meet today to coordinate the filing of charges against the pair. Montgomery County police chief Charles Moose told reporters that the weapon responsible for the killings if “off the streets.”

“It’s over,” one cop told me over the phone on Thursday. “We got the guys.”

Hopefully, he’s right. Muhammad, is turns out, is a Muslim convert but most likely not an al Qaeda operative, even though he apparently supported the actions of the 911 terrorists. A former soldier who served in the Gulf War, Muhammad appears to be another fruitcake who went off the deep end, driven by anger and hate, not politics or religious fervor.

His car was a modified shooting machine with a folding rear seat and a porthole in the trunk that let him kill without getting out of the vehicle. And while police looked for a white van that didn’t really figure into the killings, the blue Chevy would slip away undetected.

Is it over? Will some other nutcase driven by a desire to gain all the media attention pick up his rifle and copycat the work of the DC sniper? Serial killers date back to Jack the Ripper and who knows what other madmen out there would like to get the media attention of the DC sniper.

And we know bin Laden’s goons took a lot of notes during the three-week media frenzy over the sniper killings. They saw how one or two madmen with a gun and a lot of hate could disrupt life in the nation’s capital. Who needs to hijack a 757 and die when you can buy a Bushmaster for $750 and spread terror from hiding and live to kill again?

The threat from the DC sniper may be over.

But the threats to our way of life will continue. Let’s hope that sad fact doesn’t get lost in the celebration.