washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Marjorie Williams

The Random Death Of Our Sense of Ease

By Marjorie Williams
Friday, October 11, 2002; Page A37

A cancer patient learns to see them coming, the ones who want to ask you (or tell you) just how you managed to give yourself this illness, and why you have failed so far to cure it. It is your toxic anger. It is what you eat, or fail to eat. It is your neglect of your third chakra, or your stubborn refusal to take coffee enemas. They would never be so foolish.

These conversations have given me a new, if irritated, respect for the human animal's drive to explain away the random fact of bad fortune. And I've found them helpful in groping to answer the question my son asked immediately when the sniper attacks began: Why does this series of killings have everyone so upset? It saddened me, to say the least, that he was trying at the age of 9 to fix the murders into some larger context of more quotidian mayhem. But I was also fascinated by his quick intuition that these killings have a special power to tamper with our core sense of safety.

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Sudden death always threatens to strip away our illusions that we have some dominion over fate. But this killer seems especially frightening for his apparent determination to mirror, in the randomness of his acts, the brute impartiality of death itself. When someone is picking off victims with the implacable dispassion of nature, we can't tell ourselves, "Oh, she walked home from the Metro after dark in the wrong neighborhood." Or: "Well, he smoked for 25 years." Or even: "She always did drive too fast." Any of the stories we tell ourselves, in other words, to set ourselves apart from the dead. These shootings insist on reminding us that even if we buy our next tank of gas unscathed, any Thursday can bring the slip in the shower, the crash on the interstate, the look on the technician's face when she sees the bad shadow on the film.

It is only human, our desire to tell ourselves that death is an ugly relative who need never be invited to dinner. But, of course, it doesn't stand up to scrutiny, and this is just what our sniper has forced on us. Suddenly we have to perform consciously all the little calculations we are always making to appease the fates. And there is something shaming about being caught in the act. Did anyone see me scuttle from the door of the grocery store to the safety of my car? Will people think I'm crazy if I don't let my child go to baseball practice? If I do? What is my gut belief about the laws of probability, and how much more vulnerable do I make myself if I expose my magical thinking to the cold light of day?

I have no evidence of this, beyond what my heart tells me. But I also think a part of our horror and fear is how legible this killer feels to us. The awful shrewdness of the way this person has gone about scaring us invites us to puzzle over his acts -- and, in doing so, to join him. We are trying so hard to parse the hunter's cruelty that for minutes at a time we step into his shoes: What does he want? How does he decide? What does he see when he waits for someone to still in his sight? If we are perfectly honest, there is relief in standing for those moments at his end of the gun. None of us is very different from my gentle son, who responds by modeling small fingers in the shape of a weapon and shooting at everything around him, making secretive, muffled sounds of explosion in the back of his mouth.

When he asked me why everyone is so upset by these particular crimes, I found myself wading hip deep into the concept of motive, and its apparent absence here. I dragged the conversation back out of this swamp as quickly as I could. (The fact that killers usually have reasons, however bad, for what they do: Is that the most or the least comforting thing a 9-year-old could hear?) But I knew, too, that his question led straight to the heart of the matter. What we really labor to keep from our children is the same bitter knowledge that their elders avoid: not that people get killed by strangers, or that there are too many guns in our world, or that madness never sleeps, but that there is no logic at all to some of the worst blows that life metes out. Time and chance happen to us all, darling boy, and even grown-ups can bear it only a little bit at a time.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company