Prayers, jokes help D.C. area cope with fear

Although some are urging professional help, much of the care is one on one, between family and friends.

Jacqueline had never heard a gunshot. "It sounded like a loud pop," she said. That's why she just kept walking her sheltie – and chatting with neighbors on the street – as another sniper shot met its mark on nearby Connecticut Avenue just before 6 a.m. Tuesday.

Her Aspen Hill neighborhood just north of the US capital has borne the brunt of the sniper attacks that have driven out nearly all other thoughts in the Washington area since they began on Oct. 2. Four of the first attacks were within a mile of her apartment.

But in many ways, this latest attack has been the toughest to bear. People regrouped after the first attack and tried to get back to a normal routine. The sniper appeared to have moved out of state.

"We were trying to just get on with our lives and not have a spirit of fear," says Jacqueline, who asked that her last name not be used. "Then, it came back out of nowhere."

For many Washington residents, it feels like the opening of the sixth seal in book of Revelation: The Pentagon attack, then anthrax-filled letters, deadly mosquitoes, and now random terror from a sniper's gun. And unlike the surge of collective courage on 9/11 – with firemen and police shoulder to shoulder in flaming debris or passengers rallying to fight on a doomed airliner – this struggle against fear is being waged largely alone.

Families, friends, and co-workers are talking about the case daily, even hourly. But with the threat seemingly constant – except when at home behind closed curtains – questions of how to cope and behave must be faced and answered one fear at a time.

The terror of randomness

What makes the circumstances especially challenging is it that the danger appears to be random, experts say. Random terror as a tool of political control was perfected by the totalitarian dictators of the 20th century. But its effects can be generated as well by a lone gunman.

"If you look at the likelihood that any one individual would be injured, the likelihood is very small. It's the perception that the individual is in danger that is the issue," says Mary Ann Dutton, a research professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University in Washington.

"Some people respond with a heightened sense of awareness of their surroundings, heightened vigilance, and constantly thinking about the danger all of the time," she says. "Other people have a style that much more avoids that reality. They cognitively explain to themselves that the chance of their getting hurt or someone they know is really quite low."

Local psychiatrists advise people to be aware of high levels of stress and seek professional help, if needed. But much of the care is going on one-on-one, between family and friends.

More dogs to walk

Montha Falk is a professional dogwalker in Kensington, Md., and spends most of her days pulling leashes through neighborhoods that the sniper has stalked. Business has been booming, as people here are more reluctant to go outside with their own dogs. But her own days are more frightening.

"I saw a white box van out walking after the shooting [Tuesday] and I cringed. I couldn't move. Then, I remembered a friend at my church who said to me, 'You cannot let this evil person take away your life. You must trust in God.' So, I just prayed, and then I went on."

For others, a kind of black sniper humor helps lift fear. A Wheaton man tells friends that he always stoops to tie his shoes when he pumps gas... "except that I'm wearing loafers." "Got to keep moving. Got to keep moving these days," he tells those behind him in line. "I feel like a gazelle crossing the river in crocodile season," says a man from Chevy Chase.

"It's that kind of humor that keeps people going," says Greg McCrary, a former FBI profiler who runs his own consulting firm, Behavioral Criminology International, based in Fredericksburg, Va.

For the police working the case at task force headquarters in Rockville the moments of lightness are rare, but still present. On Saturday, a delivery truck stopped by with a donation of two crates of Red Bull energy drink. The 8.3 fluid oz. Can of carbonated water, sucrose, glucose, and sodium citrate promises to "improve performance, especially during times of increased stress or strain." It raised a laugh.

Most of the police working this case have been working 12 to 16 hours a day for three weeks straight. Last week, supervisors started telling officers that they had to take time off. Many said no. "The level of intensity is high, but guys aren't sitting around their patrol cars depressed," says Corporal Rob Moroney with the Maryland State Police, who has been assigned to the task force.

Police have wrestled with how much information to release to the public about the nature of the threat. While Richmond police released the threat to children in the postscript of a letter left at the scene of the 12th sniper shooting in Ashland, Va., Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose did not inform the public of the threat until late Tuesday.

With a PhD in criminology and urban studies, Chief Moose has made a career of what he calls open and progressive relations with the communities he polices. That means that when the community has concerns, the police talk about them.

The related moral questions and second-guessing by the press and public combine to make this a pressure situation few police chiefs ever see.

"I have 27 years in actual police work and headed four police departments, and never handled one of these cases," says former New York Police Commissioner Pat Murphy, now living in Bethesda, Md.

Even for the press corps hunkered down in white tents outside task force headquarters, the sniper 24/7 is taking a toll. "I haven't been able to get to church in three weeks," says a television reporter. "This is no time to lose what you believe in."

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