NOTHING fascinates and frightens us more than sudden death in all its randomness and inexplicability. We cope with its hovering presence in our lives largely by trying to ignore it. But our fear, however repressed, lurks just below the surface.
Our denial is generally equal to the task of coping with death in its accidental and "natural" forms. When death is delivered by our fellow humans, however, we require not just justice but explanation.
A sniper with a .223-caliber high-powered rifle is killing people near Washington. Like any hunter, the sniper kills because it pleases him and is an exercise in ultimate power. The sniper's victims are targets of opportunity. Men, women, black, white, young, old -- it doesn't matter. The thrill is in the selection, the timing of the shot, the escape and the outrage and frustration of those who put themselves in front of cameras to deplore this offense to our illusions of safety.
Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose, near tears, said after a 13-year-old boy was shot: "But now we are stepping over the line. Shooting a kid, it's getting to be really, really personal now." As if there were some line not crossed by the same shooter's fatal attacks on six adults before the boy was critically wounded.
There is a lot of speculation about the killer's "agenda." As if there were some motive that would help us understand such actions.
Remember David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, who hunted couples on the dark streets of New York in 1976 and 1977? He killed six people, wounded seven, and we took some comfort in learning afterward that he believed he had been instructed to do so by a dog. Ah, at least there was some reason. People took additional comfort when they heard he was abused as a child.
Mr. Berkowitz taunted the police with letters to a newspaper reporter. The Washington shooter taunts them by shooting a child in front of a school after officials broadcast that they were taking precautions to make the schools safe. Found on the ground in the woods from which the sniper shot was the Tarot death card inscribed: "Dear Policeman, I am God."
So we turn to "experts" to describe and explain this person. A former FBI profiler, Clint Van Zandt, said in an interview Tuesday on America Online, "This is a man with a mission, and part of that mission is to frighten us." No kidding.
This seems like 9/11 in miniature.
If someone is trying to scare us, he must be a terrorist. But this guy is different. Unlike mass murderers, who are often suicidal, serial killers try not to get caught.
But they are inevitably careless. The sniper left a shell casing behind at the site of the boy's shooting. Next will be some other mistake (like Mr. Berkowitz' parking ticket) that will lead to his capture. And we'll ask him, "Why did you do this?" And there will be some grievance like a lost job, a broken relationship or an abusive childhood with which he will try to "explain" his actions.
The sniper will not say the truth -- that he was exhilarated by the godlike feeling at the instant he squeezed that trigger, how smart he was to avoid capture, how important he felt on watching his exploits chronicled endlessly on television. A 19-year-old door gunner in Vietnam once told me with evident pleasure, "Back home I couldn't even get a job. Here I've got a license to kill."
There are some things we know but never seem to accept. One of them is that each of our lives is hanging by a thread. Another is that we cannot celebrate the hunter and his weapons and not expect some among us to work out their sense of powerlessness in the simplest way at hand.
Our folklore consists primarily of hunting stories. Our president is now suggesting that we hunt Iraqis. We are not that far removed from a world where eating depended upon hunting.
Given the occasional dramatic deficit in empathy, and easy access to weapons of individual destruction, we are capable of terrorizing ourselves quite as thoroughly as can al-Qaida. It's not much of an explanation for these instances of random death that simultaneously frighten and entertain us. But I think it closer to the truth than most of what I'm hearing on TV.
Gordon Livingston is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia.