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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Washington, DC

Globe and Mail Update
Friday, October 25, 2002
From the Field
Kim Jin David


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Pictures from Washington

John Lee Malvo, 17, left, and John Allen Muhammad, are seen in this recent family photo in Louisiana, provided by Muhammad's former sister-in-law Sheron Norman, Thursday Oct. 24, 2002, in Baton Rouge, La. Muhammad, a 41-year-old Army veteran and the teenager described as his stepson were arrested at a roadside rest stop Thursday for questioning in the three-week wave of deadly sniper attacks that have terrorized the Washington, D.C., area.
Photo: AP/Courtesy of Sheron Norman

Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose, right, speaks to reporters outside Montgomery County Police headquarters about the Washington area sniper case, Thursday evening, Oct. 24, 2002, in Rockville, Md. Moose announced the arrest of John Allen Muhammad. The person at left is unidentified.
Photo: AP/Ken Lambert

This October 24 2002 image shows a Bushmaster rifle. Maryland police earlier arrested two men in connection with the Washington, DC, area sniper shootings and it is reported that a weapon similar to the Bushmaster was found in the suspect vehicle. Photo: AFP

Anthrax. The bombing of the Pentagon. And now the sniper.

Growing up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, I always looked forward to spending Christmases with my aunt in Washington. My family and I spent the 12 hour drives singing songs or listening to "A Chipmunk Christmas" several times over, laughing all the way. While we all enjoyed the adventures of eating American food, buying American clothes, and watching American cable television, we came to spend time with our relatives. At some point in our teens, my brother and I decided to spend Christmases with our friends in Toronto, and our annual trips came to an end. But the District had grown on me by then and I did miss being here.

That was in the mid-80s, when Washington was often referred to as the murder capital of America. With its sizable homeless community, wide-open street market of drugs, and trash-filled streets, Washington, D.C., was a city-state in dysfunction. Think 'Detroit', but with the Lincoln Memorial. But today the streets are clean and safe and, yes, formerly run-down neighbourhoods are thriving -Washington's urban renewal is nothing short of a miracle.

Still, Washington is not Shangri-La. In the past 14 months, much has happened.

When I arrived in town last month to begin my four month internship at The Globe and Mail, I attended a September 11 service at a Korean Church with my cousin. A middle-aged man riddled with survivor's guilt recounted the terrorist attack on the Pentagon last year. He wept as he described returning to work a few days after the suicide bombing to find dozens of cars, unmoved, belonging to co-workers who never got to go home. It reminded me that the terrorists hit here too, and I finally saw the Pentagon as more than an icon, it was a building full of people.

Then the sniper struck.

On Oct. 2, at 6:04 p.m., a 55-year-old man was shot and killed in a grocery store parking lot in a northern Washington suburb. The next morning, four more people were shot dead. It was the beginning of the serial killings of the so-called Beltway Sniper who has killed ten people and wounded three, including a 13-year-old boy. On Thursday morning, police arrested two people, a 42-year-old man and a teenager who were sleeping in a car by the side of a road in Maryland and all signs indicate the sniper's reign of terror is over.

My friends back home often asked how people felt in a place with a sniper on the loose. The short answer was I don't know. Over the past three weeks, I've stopped countless people on the street to ask that very question. I received the same answers over and over again.

Are you scared?

"If it's your time, it's your time."

Are you going out less?

"You have to be brave or he wins."

Are you doing anything to feel safer?

"What can you do?"

People were afraid. There was a fear of death, yes, but not a fear of murder. It seemed that losing your life to the lethal efficiency of the sniper was akin to death by nature, like being struck by a bolt of lightning, rather than being the victim of a bloodthirsty predator.

The images in our minds of serial killers are generated by the fame they achieve through the reporting of the atrocities they commit. But our local sniper was not a stalker and he didn't mutilate or make trophies of his victims' bodies. The stereotypical characterizations of a serial killer didn't quite fit.

With this sniper, there was no struggle, the only contact was a single high-velocity round, and the victims never saw it coming, never saw the barrel pointed at them. There was no defense. What could you do? There was no safety here.

If it's your time, it's your time.

Blocks and blocks of houses surround my apartment, on the northwestern edge of Washington, and my neighbourhood isn't near a major highway. Although admitting this may provoke a call from my mother, I'll say it anyway: Even during the height of sniper hysteria, I felt safe when I got back from work and, yes, I took walks at night. In the past few weeks, I have seen fewer and fewer people on the streets. The evening before the arrests, I didn't see a soul. I imagined everyone at home with their families, tuned into CNN's coverage of the destructive force holding them all hostage.

Still, I'm not sure that the bravado displayed by Washingtonians, by Americans, is just talk. They really are resilient, gifted with an uncanny ability to cope.

And that brings me to anthrax and the mail.

The Globe and Mail's Washington bureau moved offices at the end of September to the offices of the Washington bureau of CTV. While some bumps in the transition were to be expected, others were not. Example: the mail. The usually efficient U.S. postal service hasn't forwarded a single piece of mail in almost four weeks.

Last Friday, I set out on a quest to find our mail. Before I bounced from post office to post office to post office, my first stop, as prescribed by the U.S.P.S. helpline, was the Brentwood Mail Facility, the former mail hub of the district. As the taxi pulled into the driveway, I saw that the complex was sealed and bulges of wrinkled foil poked out through the windows as if the interior was filled with popcorn. Day-glo bio-hazard stickers were everywhere.

The facility was deserted and the lone site employee was manning a security gate that never really had to be closed.

"This gentleman was told to come here to pick up his mail," said Albert Green, my cabbie, already scratching his head with his thumb.

The English language lacks the adjective to describe the look on the guard's face, but I'll never forget what he said.

"There be anthrax up in here."

I paused and thought it over.

"Where's my mail?" I asked.

Anthrax. The bombing of the Pentagon. And now the sniper.

Washington, D.C. It's an interesting town and I am happy here. But I'll be coming home for Christmas.

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