With everyone a target, fear is hard to avoid

Susan Reimer

IT IS DIFFERENT this time.

When a truck bomb blew the facade off the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people, I wasn't afraid.

I was shocked that an American could strike against his own in such a murderous way, but I wasn't worried. It was the work of a loner, and they caught him almost immediately.

Even if Timothy McVeigh were part of a homegrown anti-government cell, I was not part of the hated federal government, and I didn't feel vulnerable.

When terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I wasn't afraid.

I was stunned by such an attack within our borders and convinced that there would now be no limit to the grisly imagination of terrorists. But I can't say that I felt afraid.

I don't work in a building that is a symbol of American financial or military power. And although Disney World and the Super Bowl might also be symbolic targets, I wasn't planning to be in either of those places.

I reassured my children, and myself, that terrorists weren't likely to make political statements by blowing up their suburban high school or the local mall.

Even when anthrax dust began to show up in the mail, I wasn't afraid. The Unabomber didn't worry me, either.

I don't work in the halls of Congress or in the bowels of a post office. The only packages I get are from catalog companies; and, while the correspondence that arrives at my office is often angry, I wasn't worried about it being contaminated.

But this time, it is different. This time, I am afraid.

Somebody with a high-powered rifle is picking off everyday people doing everyday things. As of yesterday afternoon, six were dead and two more were wounded in the Washington area.

They were vacuuming out a van, pumping gas, walking into school, sitting on a bench, buying groceries, cutting the grass.

They were not walking home alone after the bars closed. They were not hanging out on a drug corner. They were not reporting to work for the military-industrial complex.

What's more, this isn't happening in Los Angeles or Houston or Portland, Maine. It is happening very, very close to home.

The sniper chose a 13-year-old walking to the door of his middle school in Bowie, a community so close to mine that I shop there.

Suddenly "geographic profiling" doesn't sound like voodoo police work to me. I want to get a look at the map. Just how close is he getting to my neighborhood, I want to know. My gas station? My dry cleaners? My children's school?

More than any time in the recent history of convulsive violence in this country, I feel like I, or someone I love or someone I know well, could be next.

Montgomery County police chief Charles Moose, tearful and angry, said, "This is getting to be really, really personal now."

He was talking, I think, about the fact that the killer was defying the best efforts of the police and going after children. But this is "really, really personal" for another reason as well.

I am personally very afraid, and I cannot buck myself up with a renewed determination to go about my daily routines and show this outlaw that Americans cannot be cowed, because doing daily routines is exactly how people are dying this time.

You can argue that Sept. 11 was a routine day for the unsuspecting victims in the World Trade Center. But a pair of 110-story towers at America's financial nerve center that had been a terrorist target once before is hardly the strategic equivalent of a bus stop in Silver Spring.

I imagine that Osama bin Laden wanted to make a huge statement, in addition to killing the maximum number of innocents, and that is why he chose the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and, presumably, the White House or Capitol.

But if he really wanted to stop America in its tracks, he might have just sent 20 snipers to this country instead of 20 hijackers.

"All of us will have to fight," Prince George's County police chief Gerald Wilson said yesterday. "We cannot allow one individual to shut that spirit down in us."

But that is exactly what is happening. Parents are keeping children home from school, and schools are keeping the rest of the children indoors. Community and sporting events are being canceled.

Adults have been seen bobbing and weaving from the car to the grocery store. Dry cleaners and gas stations are reporting reduced foot traffic. Doors are locked and shades drawn. It seems as if this sniper knows something al-Qaida did not:

Gun down enough women loading groceries into vans, enough men filling their gas tanks, enough children walking to school, enough joggers, enough babies in strollers in enough anonymous neighborhoods, and you will make even the heartiest Americans feel afraid and vulnerable.

PHOTO GALLERIES