A cloud of terror lifts.
Charles Moose was chief of police in Portland before he took charge of the Montgomery County, Md., police department, so Oregonians had the advantage of reading a familiar face on Thursday. Moose was plainly relieved by the arrest of two suspects in the random shootings that terrorized the Washington, D.C., area for three weeks, but there was also a gleam of vindication in his eyes. Ordinary, thorough police work had paid off.
The break came the way it often does in criminal cases: the suspect left a mosaic of clues that finally gelled into a coherent picture. A telephone caller, evidently John Allen Muhammad, told a priest in Ashland, Va., about a crime in Montgomery, Ala. Police put this fragment together with others, and learned of a robbery and murder in Alabama four weeks earlier. A fingerprint from that crime scene belonged to Muhammad's suspected 17-year-old accomplice, John Lee Malvo. The two were arrested within hours, with the help of citizens who spotted the pair sleeping in their car at a highway rest stop.
The arrests lift the cloud of fear that descended on the capital region, allowing people to reclaim the public spaces of ordinary life - schools, bus stops, parks, restaurants, gas stations. Though the odds of being killed by the sniper were less than the chances of being killed in a traffic accident, the randomness of the shootings made them terrifying. There was no rational way to respond to a killer who was utterly indiscriminate in his choice of targets. He didn't aim at any particular type of person, so no one was safe.
The absence of a pattern to the crimes, their deadly meaninglessness, created an information vacuum. Speculation filled the void, particularly on the around-the-clock cable news channels. Some of that speculation succeeded mainly in feeding people's fears. But even in such strained conditions, where suspicions can quickly take root, there were no vigilante actions, no roundups of people deemed likely suspects, no suspensions of civil liberties. As people in the Washington, D.C., area have had occasion to demonstrate repeatedly over the past year, Americans can keep their heads even when they're frightened.
The big question to be answered now is one of motive. Here, too, speculation is risky. No one knows whether there's anything to be made of Muhammad's supposed conversion to Islam, his military service in the Persian Gulf War or his checkered personal history. The suspects' motive won't be understood right away, if it can ever be understood at all - and in the meantime, people should avoid pointing an accusing finger at anyone but the suspects themselves.
The Washington, D.C., area has been the scene of one of the deadliest and spookiest serial killings in history. History's judgments will come in due course. For now, Moose's face says it all: We can be relieved that it's over, and we can be glad that a dogged investigation ultimately cracked a tough case.
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|Title Annotation:||Restrain speculation about sniper's motive; Editorials|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Oct 26, 2002|
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