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Terror's Renewed Lesson

October 09, 2002

"Terror" is a word Americans have heard and used a lot in the last 13 months. It means intense fear. And that, even on this opposite coast, is what the Washington-area sniper has unleashed this last week. Eight people--six dead, two wounded, one of them a boy going to school--were methodically picked off by an unseen villain using bullets designed to splinter and maim.

Snipers are useful in war, sneaking into enemy areas to cause casualties and consternation among actual combatants. We've had snipers in American civilian life before, deranged, angry loners with guns who typically set up in some high place--a university tower or a hotel roof--to kill strangers randomly and senselessly. They're usually caught or killed quickly and we return to the mental comfort of knowing they were aberrations.

In the context of Sept. 11, 2001, however, we are more easily frightened by such violence. Any deaths and injuries are truly terrible. But it's the apparent randomness of such events that spawns terror. The perpetrators use our prized openness and routine innocence to stalk us. Out of a clear blue sky, airplanes crash into buildings, single bullets crash through one pedestrian running errands and not another, one child gets abducted and murdered while a playmate doesn't.

As humans, we need patterns to make sense of our surroundings--even lethal patterns. A fired employee, a racist, a pervert or a spurned lover, we need to find some reason for these incomprehensible events.

We have none of that yet in this newest spree. To have no patterns makes no sense. And that is terrifying, even far from the immediate incidents.

What usually comes from fear and frustration, strangely, is anger. The rage we feel boiling is understandable, even predictable. Arousing such reactions is, in fact, part of the sick goal of those who use terror, be they legions of suicidal zealots or cunning cults of one. One of the most important delayed lessons of 9/11 may be the recurring need to control that anger in this evolving era of terror. We need to channel that fury again and again into a kind of thoughtful but relentless response to protect the enduring civility and democracy that created and sustained the openness and innocence in the first place.

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