I wanted to write today about relief, about the joy of seeing two girls in their PE uniforms run down a hill at Tilden Middle School, arm in arm, laughing; about the boy at Holy Redeemer in Kensington who bounded onto the basketball court at the start of recess and hurled the ball so high that all the other boys stopped short and craned their necks before letting out a big whoop; about the moms at Toys R Us who hustled out during lunch hour Friday to shop for Halloween costumes -- something they would have taken care of weeks ago, if only.
But I soon realized that to write about relief would be to miss the real story. Yes, the kids are back outside, and hallelujah for that. And yes, the parking lots are full again along Rockville Pike, and I had to wait in a 1970s-style queue at the gas station.
Alas, that is but one easy aspect of our story. At one school after another, when I dropped by to talk about this deliverance from anxiety, I was met not with the usual welcome from teachers and principals eager to show off their happy children, but with severe jitters.
"Can't talk," one principal said. "I'm just still too scared."
"No, no, no," said another. "Parents are so nervous, they'd kill me if I let the school's name be published."
On the schoolyards, children displayed no such reservations. They ran and shouted, played hoops and foursquare and even an illicit game of dodgeball -- violating the ban placed on the game back when an unthreatened society had little to do other than search the culture for possibly offensive activities to forbid.
But parents know that when night falls, the sniper's grasp remains strong. Big, strong boys crawl into their parents' beds. A fourth-grade girl mounts an argument worthy of F. Lee Bailey that the police got the wrong man. A first-grader challenges his parents to prove that there won't be another shooter this very night.
A Washington Post poll last week included a question that would have been inconceivable little more than a year ago: "Which of the following have you found most personally threatening, the sniper shootings, the September 11 terrorist attacks, or the anthrax letters?" (Results: sniper, 44 percent of respondents; 9/11, 29 percent; and anthrax, 13 percent.)
Why did the remote chance of being struck by a rifle shot rattle more people than a declaration of war by a global army of terrorists capable of killing thousands at a time? Because the sniper attacks were random, because there were few enough that each victim remained an individual with a story rather than just a number in the public consciousness, and because, after 9/11 and anthrax, this just put some people over the edge.
After the past 13 months, it's no wonder our jitters linger after the suspects' capture. No wonder some enterprising Arizona developer placed an ad in this paper urging us to "Move Out of the Bullseye."
"Not knowing if your children are going to come home from school -- that's a crazy way to live," said Arek Fressadi, the home builder, when I reached him in Carefree, Ariz. "You're it. You're the bull's-eye. Out here, we just don't feel it. It's an East Coast threat." Fressadi said his 21-year-old son placed the ad, using language Dad considers "maybe opportunistic." That's one word for it.
I'm happy to report that Fressadi's voice mail the day after the ad ran included not one call from a fearful Washingtonian.
But Fressadi is wrong about life being carefree in Carefree. There is no such thing. That's the whole idea behind terrorism.
Too often of late, we have been instructed that life has changed. We also know that time heals.
But it heals only when there is time. Without the 24/7 drumbeat of news coverage, would we have allowed our daily routines to have been suspended? How much breaking news do we absorb before it -- and we -- are broken?
Next time -- and the jitters I encountered indicate that many of us expect a next time -- we ought not react this way again. To suspend daily routines so cavalierly is prudent, some say. Actually, it's indefensible -- as a matter of strategy, it encourages a terrorist; as a message to children, it creates anxiety; as a way to live in a risky future, it's impossible to sustain.
The alternative is to push on; call it courage if you must. Really, it's just one more daily decision to live the only life you get.