washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Marjorie Williams

Surrendering to Fear

By Marjorie Williams
Friday, October 25, 2002; Page A29

Now that two solid suspects are in custody for the killings that have dominated the region for the past three weeks, we may hope to recapture our everyday sense of safety. It is less obvious whether we can retrieve our dignity so fast.

The sniper's reign of terror was without doubt a rational cause for fear, and I don't fault any of those who took precautions to protect themselves or their loved ones. But over the past week our public reactions to the killings -- the media coverage, the poses of the authorities charged with ensuring our safety, the language in which we talked about the mystery man or men who held us in suspense -- crossed an invisible but palpable line into social hysteria. The sniper was "holding the region hostage." An AP report had us "paralyzed by fear." Parents faced "an agonizing choice" about whether to send their children to school.

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I am talking here about something more subtle than the simple ubiquity of the coverage. The best example was our response to the snipers' threat, last weekend, to continue to target children. When they wrote this threat ("Your children are not safe anywhere at any time") at the end of a letter left at the scene of Saturday's shooting, we reacted with a dreadful lack of perspective. In fact, we already knew that the mysterious killer was willing to gun down a child; and in truth, we had shown ourselves pretty well able to protect most of our children in most places most of the time, precisely because they spend their days inside structures well regulated by public authorities. They are not the people who need to pump gas and drive buses and vacuum out minivans.

It seemed obvious that the snipers' threat against children was mostly an ominous afterthought (after all, it was contained in a "P.S."), thrown in to reinforce the fear that we had so vividly shown them they had the power to induce. The cycle of communication between killer and community was, from the beginning, patently self-reinforcing. So at that point it behooved us to bring some sense of perspective to the crisis, especially in service of protecting the psychological health of the very children at issue. But instead we treated the threat as if, by itself, it increased our victimization at the killers' hands, our inability to stop them.

Here, I'm afraid, this newspaper deserves a measure of blame, for its decision to strip across the top of the front page on Wednesday a headline warning "Letter Threatens Children in Region." In a paper that actively solicits young readers by publishing the best children's page in the country, it was a disservice to thrust the existence of this new threat on kids who are by themselves powerless to ensure their own safety. For any newspaper-reading adult in the region who didn't have the common sense to know that he or she needed to take precautions around such routines as school drop-offs, it would have sufficed to include the new threat elsewhere in the front-page coverage.

To say that we surrendered too completely to the idea of the killer's omnipotence may carry the scent of Monday-morning quarterbacking. But it is worth looking closely at our reaction, because it exemplifies a creeping self-pity in our public life. Better to have dealt with and acted on our fears as the individual emotions they were, while at least trying to maintain a public attitude of greater stoicism.

One important reason is that such a reaction might have inflamed the killers less: How much did our constant insistence on our vulnerability feed their sense of lustful omnipotence? But even putting aside this facet of public safety, there remains another danger in the way we have begun to confuse personal emotion with public fact.

We can see it in the way we still discuss the effects of 9/11 -- the loss of innocence we all suffered, the trauma, the depression, the sense of safety gone forever. Yes, each of us felt all these things in the months that followed, and most of us feel some of them still. We all need to understand these reactions to the extent they are forces in our own lives. But at some point it serves us very ill as a culture to dwell so fondly on our emotional injuries, which are not at all the same as the actual injuries of those who died or lost loved ones on that day, or as the public injury we suffered in being the target of sudden attack.

Once upon a time, we responded to disaster with the understanding that fear was infectious, that "fear itself" could undermine us in times of danger. Courage, after all, is not the absence of fear but the capacity to move forward in spite of it. One of the ways we feed this capacity is by modeling it in the public square. And one of the ways we strangle it is by insisting, over and over, that our vulnerability is the most important thing about us.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company