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Prayers and cabin fever in the crosshairs


We’re skipping Mass today,” I announced. It was Oct. 13, a week and a half into the sniper attacks that had begun to dominate our lives. We’re not a Sunday Mass-optional type of family, so the children, ages 12, 14 and 16, greeted the news with some astonishment (and probably some suppressed delight).

Still, my teenage daughter wouldn’t give her father an inch, even with a gunman on the loose. She informed me that our absence would be a mortal sin. She knew her catechism. Even so, I knew my catechism-for-dads. We stayed home. Indoors. At dinner, we prayed the police would catch the killer and thanked God for keeping us safe. But indoors.

October is beautiful in the Washington area. Not too much rain, mild temperatures, the perfect time to be outside. My son, the oldest, was infuriated. He tried to nail me down. “When are you going to let me go to the park? Tomorrow? The next day?” he asked. Playground basketball is his passion.

I tried to explain -- and sounded like Ari Fleisher trying to dodge the press. “We’ll continue to do what we’ve got to do, but we have to look at all optional activities and decide on a case-by-case basis if we can do them.” Small comfort to the cabin-fevered.

Rationally, in an area of 6 million people, the likelihood of walking into the assassin’s crosshairs was exceedingly slim. You’d have a better chance winning the lottery.

This, however, was not a rational exercise. The shooter hit, quite literally, where we live. Our grocery store, our gas station. Six of the 13 shootings occurred within five miles of our home, the closest less than a mile away.

A strange parlor game developed: Who is this guy, or, as it turned out, guys? Not overtly racist, instead an equal opportunity psychopath who fired with skill at whites, blacks, Indians, Hispanics, men and women. There was no apparent political message, but a Clockwork Orange-like rage exacted one .223 caliber rifle shot at a time. Very strange.

The following weekend we headed to rural Pennsylvania, my in-laws’ home, for refuge. The only concern there -- 280 miles north of Montgomery County -- is that a New Jersey “flatlander” will mistake you for a buck during deer season. We went to Mass at Holy Name of Mary, where we prayed for the murders to end.

Back home, we settled into a strange routine. Most everything was cancelled or postponed -- soccer matches and Boy Scout outings, volleyball practices and the homecoming dance -- so it was school, work and home. I dropped the kids off each morning at the school door, and picked them up at the same spot to minimize public exposure.

“Your children are not safe anywhere at anytime,” said the postscript to the note left at the penultimate crime scene in Ashland, Va. Of course, we knew that already, but it was angering and not a little frightening to hear it so directly.

I advised my wife, a teacher, to be prepared when she entered or left our minivan in the school’s parking lot. Park as close as you can, don’t lock the doors so you don’t have to fiddle with keys when you’re leaving, don’t stop between work and home, keep your cell phone on.

A train whistle in the distance used to wake us up; it was replaced by the whirl of police helicopter blades.

Like everyone else, I ducked as I pumped gas; studied the line of sight before loading groceries.

Then, on Oct. 24, capture.

The rapidly receding experience was, I think, more unnerving for the parents than the children, at least our children. But one thing is clear: They know at far too young an age a world chock full of crazies; that random acts of God or man are not leveled solely or even largely at the malevolent or evil. That life is not fair.

No one knows that better today than the families of those killed or maimed in what should have been another beautiful Washington autumn. We’ll pray for them.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent.

National Catholic Reporter, November 08, 2002