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Jewish World Review Oct. 21, 2002 / 15 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Neil Steinberg

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We're still a long way from coming unglued | This is why people watch all those TV crime shows. You get the crime, the criminal, the search, the arrest, sometimes even the trial and conviction, all in the brief span of an hour. "The good end happily and the bad unhappily,'' wrote Oscar Wilde. "That is what fiction means.''

Real life, such as the sniper nightmare daily unfolding in the Washington area, is far, far more drawn out and disturbing, in part because our expectations are so solidly rooted in TV fantasy.

We expect the police to catch the guy. Don't they always? We check CNN--I sure do--by the hour, to see if they've got him yet. Not yet.

We also anticipate that, once caught, the killer will be a Bad Guy, someone we expect to do such a crime. On CNN, an ex-Marine said he knew one thing for certain: the killer or killers weren't ex-military (Semper Fi! No Marine would do that! ). His theory: some punk whacked out on violent video games, just like the kids at Columbine.

That's comforting, like saying you expect him to be Frankenstein.

We forget conjectures, like predictions of the future, say more about the biases of the guesser than any indication of reality. An ex-Marine giving the Marines a pass is like me guessing the shooter might be Trent Carruthers because he once beat me up at Fairwood School.

The truth is, we have no blessed idea who's doing it, or why, and the killer or killers might never be caught. Despite all the police "we're-going-to-get-this-guy" bluster, if the sniper put his gun up over the mantle tonight and called it a day, odds are he'd get off scot-free provided he didn't brag about it in a bar, the way a surprising number of cases get solved in life, though not on television. Or he could keep going for another two weeks, or two months or two years, while the media gets bored and relegates the casualty count to a box by the horoscopes.

With people cowering in fear, we should ground ourselves in fact.

Fact 1: You're safer now, even with the sniper and al-Qaida, than you were a few years ago. In the 1990s, the average murder rate in the United States fell from nearly 10 per 100,000 to less than six, the FBI says (bear in mind when people wring their hands over violent America: We have about the same murder rate as the world as a whole).

Fact 2: America hasn't lost its innocence. I can't quite figure out why we want to be so innocent, or think we're so innocent, but every crime since Lizzie Borden has prompted announcements, vis a vis nothing, that our carefree past has vanished and we are now plunged into violent dystopia. Goodbye Norman Rockwell; hello Blade Runner. That's nonsense. I'll tell you when our innocence will be lost. When the federal prosecutors in Chicago live in walled compounds and travel to work in Ford Broncos filled with machinegun-toting bodyguards, as they do in South America. When a backpack left on a park bench leads to a frantic cry of "Whose is this?'' then evacuation and a call to the bomb squad, as it does in Israel.

Then we'll lose our innocence. It might happen. Don't get me wrong. We saw what 19 terrorists did a year ago. Imagine what 19 terrorists (or ex-Marines, or video game-crazed mopes) armed with high-powered rifles, could do, dispatched to a dozen cities around America.

Frankly, I'm struck by the reluctance of people to assume the D.C. killings are the work of terrorists. Obviously, we're all rooting for a Travis Bickel psycho because we know that, if this is part of a plan--the test run--we're up a creek. If our innocence is lost now, what will happen when this is happening everywhere, all the time?

We're captivated by this for a reason. The marksmanship of the sniper has been commented on again and again, but I'm more struck by the evil genius or serendipity of his selection of victims. People only have so much sympathy to go around--very few mourn every fallen sparrow--and they do a quick calculation when it comes to crime victims: Were they local? Were they like me? (The people like you, needless to say, get sympathy, and those unlike you, the shrug).

Remember that nearly 50 people died of West Nile Virus this summer in Illinois. People were concerned, in a low level, eat-your-Wheaties way, because the assumption was healthy people would be OK. This is different. The D.C. sniper, whether by accident or design, has shot the rainbow--black and white, young and old, male and female. Nor were these people doing the kind of things where we could tell ourselves they somehow deserved it, they were "in the wrong place at the wrong time.'' (If an honor student gets shot in Englewood after dark, many think, "Well, what was he doing there?'' even if what he was doing there was walking the dog in front of his house).

These victims were suburbanites going to the store, to school, mowing the lawn, pumping gas. Their deaths are the only true reality in this situation, the only thing that isn't theater and media and circus and speculation. That, and I suppose, the fear that they are feeling in Washington, and to a lesser extent here.

But I'll tell you what I'm afraid of, and it isn't being shot. I'm afraid we'll be seeing a lot more of this, just because the guns are out there, the media are out there, and there is an endless supply of crazies who, for whatever reason, are willing to exit life in a flash.

JWR contributor Neil Steinberg is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. His latest book is Don't Give Up the Ship: Finding My Father While Lost at Sea . Comment by clicking here.

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