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We need the general here


The war behind him, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf is now available for peacetime duty. With all deserved respect to police in Baltimore and Baltimore County, I suggest we think hard on hiring the smiling commander of Operation Desert Storm as a special consultant to apply killer ointment to the rash of robberies that has been spreading across metropolitan Baltimore since late last year.

Just yesterday, after all, President Bush did That Carpe Diem Thing by imploring that the "moral force and national will that freed Kuwait City from abuse" be used to "free America's cities from crime." This would be a fair test of the president's sincerity, don't you think?

If we can't get Schwarzkopf, maybe we could bring in Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, the plain-talkin' Pentagon chieftain who held daily press briefings throughout the war. Kelly announced his

retirement Monday. Maybe he could hold daily briefings on the armed robbery front in Baltimore County. It would be helpful if he provided maps, charts and a few surveillance photos, too. Anything to clear the picture. These have been dizzying times around here -- as confusing as terrifying.

Some key arrests have been made, but the armed robberies continue. In Towson. In Carney. In Loch Raven. In Randallstown. In Woodlawn.

In Timonium, four men, three with shotguns, ordered 27 late-night patrons at Chi-Chi's restaurant to face the floor and give up their goods. That happened on Valentine's Day, which seems like months ago. Fast-food outlets have been hit. So have supermarkets and banks. Women have been held up on sidewalks.

The night after the Chi-Chi's robbery, four men in long coats walked into a supermarket on Liberty Road. Three had shotguns. One had a handgun. Two with the shotguns ordered the store manager to open a safe. The one with the handgun fired a shot into the floor to scare a cashier. Within a day, county police made an arrest in that robbery, picking up a suspect as he returned a rental car at BWI.

But was he a gang member, or just a free-lance signing on with strangers for a one-night stand?

Another robbery that received scant notice in the press occurred the following Monday at the Perring Parkway Shopping Center. Two men -- both in their mid-30s -- held up a Carroll County man on his way out of the Rite Aid pharmacy.

Was there a connection? There were no shotguns, just a single handgun. The bandits were a couple, not a quartet. They fled on foot, instead of in a car. And they got caught. So maybe we can scratch it from the chart.

And yet, who knows what's happening out there?

Is it possible that a dozen or more young men, all owning shotguns or semiautomatic handguns, and all predisposed to commit armed robberies, have caught the fever at the same time? If so, we have the incredible coincidence of small groups of armed hoodlums, along with a handful of single-shooters, independently carrying out robberies in the northern part of the city and in congested suburban areas. They are hitting where the middle class shops, eats and banks.

We could be looking at a series of well- (or luckily) executed copy-cat crimes, a prospect that is actually more chilling than the notion of a single, well-organized gang. At least with a gang, you know the danger is concentrated, limited to a quartet of hoods. Under the copy-cat theory, we have the specter of more than a dozen young men rising out of their bean chairs, sticking shotguns under long coats and heading out into the night to commit armed holdups somewhere along the Beltway, comforted in the knowledge that the cops are busy chasing someone else.

Or maybe it's far better organized than anyone could have imagined, with quartets of bandits darting in and out of Baltimore, carrying out their robberies on some sort of synchronized schedule. Stranger things have happened.

I heard a man say he was stunned by the robberies because one hit close to home, at a supermarket where he shops regularly. These robberies aren't taking place in corner groceries on Fulton Avenue; they're breaking the relative peace of suburbia. I hear the story of a woman from Pikesville afraid to go shopping. A man in line at a fast-food outlet in Towson snaps his neck and shoots a glance at the front door each time it opens. Great.

A soldier in Operation Desert Storm might have been safer there than on the streets of America, Bush said. "It's wrong and it's going to change." Thanks for the lip service, George, but I'll take Schwarzkopf. Or the 82nd Airborne. Or at least more cops.

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