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US sniper returned me to life of terror; Irishman back in front line as gunman stalked Washington.

Byline: JACKIE DIXON in Washington

HAVING lived in Belfast throughout the worst of the North's Troubles, I thought I'd experienced everything that sustained terror can bring to urban life.

For the past three weeks, however, I've watched as some five million people in the Washington Metropolitan area and beyond have had their lives transformed by the actions of two deadly gunmen - the Washington Snipers.

For a community that had struggled to come to terms with the trauma of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon and the still unsolved anthrax deaths, two faceless gunmen brought a new type of terror and their seemingly random killing spree demonstrated that no-one was off limits.

No longer was it enough to avoid 'bad areas' or stay home at night - these killers were totally indiscriminate when it came to class, race, age or gender.It was enough to merely stray into their telescopic sights.

They didn't have to know you; they didn't have to look you in the eye. With one long distance shot, they brought a totally chilling and impersonal method of murder to the population at large.

Fall, in the Washington suburbs, means sports - high school sports - football, soccer, field hockey and most of it played in parks where acres of trees are turning a golden red and the weather is still comfortable enough to bring the chair out and watch the kids play.

This year, however, it's been different.

The playing fields have been empty and the kids have been confined to indoor activities.

The dreams of talented youngsters hoping to win lucrative sports scholarships have been defeated by two ruthless opponents with a bloodlust beyond comprehension.

Most schools have been on 'lockdown' since the killing began, meaning that once morning classes begin, doors are locked and kids remain indoors until the end of the day.

Police - their resources already thinly stretched - tried to have a visible presence at all schools.

It even looked as though kids might be denied the traditional trick-or-treat custom at Halloween.

It's been those wide open spaces - playing fields, parking lots, gas stations - that made people feel most vulnerable.

Gas stations situated close to major interstate highways (the killers' favoured areas of operations) saw their business dwindle as motorists looked for more inconspicuous areas to buy their gas.

But even then, no one felt safe.

Drivers no longer stood by their cars as they filled up, preferring instead to put the pump on automatic and either get back in their car or wait in the station shop.

Some gas stations even resorted to draping tarpaulins over the forecourt to discourage the sniper.

It all felt so stupid - but the sheer unpredictability of the gunmen ensured that we all played the game.

And woe betide anyone who drove a white van.

Heavily armed police patrols were pulling over any van that remotely resembled what was then assumed to be the killers' vehicle.

Hotels and businesses in Fairfax County reported a steep decline in trade.

Inevitably, the affair became a major media event.

This week's baseball World Series has become a mere footnote and the issues of Iraq and Al Qaeda no longer dominate the headlines.

Instead, television has been turned into a wall-to-wall sniper marathon with the nation's top news anchors spending hours outside Montgomery County's police headquarters interviewing 'experts' on ballistics, forensic science, criminal profiling and anything else that might help us understand this nightmare.

And it's addictive. You listen to it as you drive to work. You listen to it as you drive home from work. You tune in until the wee small hours to catch Chief Moose's latest press briefing.

When you do finally get to bed, the sound of police helicopters whirring overhead keeps you awake anyway.

It's little wonder then, that when John Muhammed and John Lee Malvo were taken into custody on Thursday, a party atmosphere broke out on the streets of Montgomery County.

Motorists honked their horns, workers bought cookies for police officers and a collective sigh of relief could be heard in the suburbs around Washington.

As yet, no one's saying if the case is closed but the signs are that the authorities believe they have their men.

This weekend sports fields will once again be filled with the sounds of young athletes doing their best.

And a trip to the gas station will, thankfully, return to being just another mundane event.

CAPTION(S):

TARGETING EVERYDAY LIFE: US police near the body of one of the female victims shot dead by the Washington sniper
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Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Oct 27, 2002
Words:755
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