Disarming of madmen should begin at home


WASHINGTON -- Living in Montgomery County these days with a sniper on the loose is an unnerving experience.

We've all gotten to know our police chief, Charles Moose, through his news conferences during the past two weeks of random shootings. We've also gotten to know our pizza deliverymen better. Last Monday night, my wife ordered pizza from the California Pizza Kitchen. When the deliveryman arrived, I was in the living room watching President Bush address the nation about Iraq. As my wife paid the pizza guy, she remarked to him that the pizza smelled great, "but I don't think my husband will get up, because he's watching the news conference."

"Oh," the deliveryman said, "has there been another shooting?"

No, no, no, my wife explained, my husband is watching the president speak about Iraq.

But who can blame the deliveryman for assuming that I must be watching a news conference about the shooter? If you had to drive around here at night, standing on people's doorsteps with your back to the street, all you'd be worried about would be the shooter, too. But he's hardly alone. There is something about these shootings that is touching deeper nerves in us all.

The fact that the president speaks only about Iraq, while his neighbors down the street speak only about the shooter, reinforces the sense that this administration is so obsessed with Saddam Hussein it has lost touch with the real anxieties of many Americans. Mr. Bush wants to rally the nation to impose gun control on Baghdad, but he won't lift a finger to impose gun control on Bethesda, six miles from the White House.

Personally, I'm glad Mr. Bush is focused on disarming Iraq's madman and tracing Iraq's Scud missiles and weapons of mass destruction. It's a worthy project. I just wish he were equally focused on disarming America's madmen, and supporting laws that would make it easier to trace their .223-caliber bullets and their weapons of individual destruction. A lot of us would like to see more weapons inspectors on the streets here, and in the gun shops here, not just in Baghdad.

What's also frightening about this shooter, with his high-powered rifle, is that he could be the first real domestic copycat of 9/11, in terms of technique. That is, this shooter doesn't seem to be a serial killer with a political agenda or the perverse lust to look into the eyes of his victims before he snuffs out their lives.

No, like Osama bin Laden, this shooter seems to get his thrills from seeing the fear in the eyes of the survivors -- after he randomly kills his victims as if they were deer. And like bin Laden, this shooter is a loser who combines evil, cunning, technical prowess, a world stage and a willingness to kill everyday people doing everyday things to magnify that fear. By gunning down people pumping gas, mowing lawns and walking to school, the shooter is making America's capital area squirm. That's power. No wonder the note he apparently left said, "I am God."

And no wonder the Bethesda Gazette, which normally covers school board meetings, carried a big headline that I never thought I'd see in my local paper. It said, "In the Grip of Terror," and the article included little bios of all the people killed. It could have been The New York Times on Sept. 12, 2001: "A County Challenged."

Finally, whether or not this shooter is a twisted copycat, he is part of a larger post-9/11 trend. That trend is the steady erosion of our sense of security, our sense that while the world may be crazy, we can always crawl into our American cocoon, our sense that "over here" we are safe, even if "over there" dragons live.

Well, "over here" is starting to feel like "over there" way too much. Over there, they just shot up U.S. Marines guarding Kuwaiti oil fields, but over here, when I filled my car with gas the other day, I ducked behind a pillar so no sniper could see me.

Over there, Saddam Hussein terrorizes his people, but over here, my kids are now experts in the fine distinctions between Code Blue and Code Red. Code Blue means they're locked in their public school building because a potential shooter is in the area, and Code Red means they are locked in their classroom because there may be a gunman in the building.

Frankly, I don't want to hear another word about Iraq right now. I want to hear that my president and my Congress are taking the real steps needed in this country -- starting with sane gun control and sane economic policy -- to stop this slide into over here becoming like over there.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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