It’s over. Or at least it appears to be. Black October is over, and the children around Washington can once again feel safe, or as safe as children these days are allowed to feel. They’re all little veterans of national trauma now.
When I told my son Thursday morning—I stuck my head in his room and said, “They caught the snipers, it’s over”—relief washed across his face like a series of small waves. “Who was it?” he asked. “Are they sure?” He wanted the facts so he could put a picture together in his mind. The picture would be of a monster locked hard behind bars, an unarmed monster in chains.
The national relief is palpable. So is the sense of surprise. Half the people I know feared the sniper would never be caught, or would remain at large for months or years. Half the people I know, and half the time this included me, had little faith in Chief Moose or the FBI. We were wrong. What a relief to be wrong. It’s cause for joy, as if our luck is back.
What a surprise, the profile of the oldest suspect. I imagined a brilliant Ted Bundy-type serial killer, not a more competent Richard Reid or a more elusive Timothy McVeigh, which is how John Allen Muhammad looks to me, at least at the moment. No one who knew him is talking so far of his intellectual gifts. I was also imagining a cell of al Qaeda operatives, not an unaffiliated two-man crew. But then soon we may find out what mosque Muhammad frequented, if any, and what friends he had there, if any, and what assistance he received, if any, and the story may change.
* * *
I realized yesterday that this story, the sniper story, had all along reminded me of November 1963. I was a child then, when the great trauma happened, and I remember how it seemed to cut into the natural order of things.
Almost 40 years ago, in the hours after the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, political sophisticates across the country held their breath. Was the man who shot JFK a right-wing nut, like the people who’d spat at and jeered Adlai Stevenson a month earlier when he spoke in Dallas? Conservatives feared he was, feared his act would seem to undermine their political philosophy. Liberals assumed, and some hoped, that Oswald was of the right. If JFK’s murderer were a right-winger, his death would be a martyrdom. It would have a theme. I remember the sense of surprise among people on TV when it turned out Oswald was, in words later attributed to Jackie Kennedy, “a silly little communist” who’d once defected to the Soviet Union, and who handed out Fair Play for Cuba Committee literature on American streets.
It seemed so at odds with expectations, at variance with assumptions.
The profile of the older suspect arrested yesterday is just as jarring, but somehow it is also almost jarringly familiar. An American Gulf War vet, a former Army mechanic, a black man who last year changed his surname from Williams to Muhammad, whose life was impressively sketched by a team of Seattle Times reporters in the hours just after his arrest: “Interviews with law enforcement sources, former wives and acquaintances created an emerging portrait of Muhammad: A Muslim convert and former Fort Lewis soldier sympathetic to Islamic terrorists. A man who had gone through at least two wives, with bitter custody battles over his children. A neighbor who was friendly but a control freak who kidnapped his own children.”
A man, that is, who’d been rocked by the storms of modern life, whose personal history was marked by loss and an inability to sustain connection or achieve hopes, and who’d taken refuge in the seeming safety of an all-encompassing ideology.
Just like Lee Harvey Oswald.
Soon we’ll probably see the pictures of Muhammad posing in the backyard with his rifle, as we did with Oswald. Soon we’ll probably hear reports of abuse of his wives, as Oswald abused his. Soon we’ll hear the facts of his conversion to his new belief. Communism, radical Islam—authoritarian ideologies always seem to promise a sense of coherence to the truly lost.
* * *
The most surprising part of the story is perhaps the 17-year-old alleged accomplice, the high school student who is reportedly the stepson of Muhammad but who, it turns out, may or may not be related. No one seems sure at this point what the relation between the two of them is.
If they are charged and tried it is hard not to guess that it will be some trial, with Muhammad making speeches, perhaps demanding to represent himself, perhaps eager to tell America how it is evil, a victimizer of the weak of the world, a victimizer of the Muhammads of the world.
But for now, the day after the arrests, there is reason to feel satisfaction, and even joy. Our law-enforcement agencies did what they had to do: They got the guy, or guys. In the age of Osama, this is heartening.
The sniper horror didn’t last for months or years, but weeks. Parents are relieved. Life returns to normal. People can gas up the cars again. Kids can go back to school, and homecoming weekends can be held in the Washington area. A whole generation of kids is learning or relearning that adults working together with commitment and intelligence can bring down a monster.
All of this is so profoundly to the good.
Here is something that is not. We learned again this month what we learned in 1963: that one man with a gun can change everything. But we also are reminded of what we learned in 2001. We in this country—and our foes in the world—have been reminded that this mighty nation is amazingly delicate, amazingly touchable if you will. Modern America is like a filigreed network of fine wires—huge, extensive, sophisticated, highly technologized and profoundly disturbable.
You can bring this nation to its knees with a box cutter. You can paralyze its capital with a rifle and a van. Modern America, though vast and vibrant, is vulnerable; and we have to think more about this. It’s not good that one man, or two, or 20, can stop the greatest nation in the world in its tracks, if even for a few weeks. And no, I don’t have an answer and don’t know if there’s an answer. But I feel certain it’s the real topic, the true topic that needs addressing.