Opinion How I remember the Beltway sniper killings

(Video: Washington Post staff illustration)

“Call me God.” The words were printed in blue ballpoint pen in the top margin of a card left at a murder scene 20 years ago. Not just any card: a tarot card marked with the figure of Death.

I had forgotten about the card and had lost many other details as well in the laundry of time. Time fades colors and softens sensations, leaving some memories as comfortable as old pajamas and others threadbare. After two decades, what remained with me of the Beltway sniper attacks was the pit-of-the-stomach feeling, the stew of uncertainty, fear, anger and helplessness.

The D.C. snipers terrorized a region. Here’s what it was like.

For nearly three weeks in October 2002, some person or persons haunted D.C., and nearby communities, killing people apparently at random with single shots from a .223-caliber rifle. A man was crossing a suburban parking lot. An instant later, he was dying on the pavement. A man was cutting grass in a different community. An instant later, he was dying amid the clippings. A man was putting gasoline in his car in yet another place. An instant later, his blood was pooling on the ground.

A child walking to school. A woman sitting on a bench. A woman running an errand.

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Residents of the capital region were primed for fear. The shootings began just after the first anniversary of 9/11, when there was still a raw hole in downtown Manhattan and a fresh memory of black smoke boiling from the burning Pentagon. The next blow seemed a question of when, not if — and most of all, how.

And now people were dropping dead in their tracks in the undefended neighborhoods around Washington.

I remember a conversation about whether a mom’s body would adequately shield a baby during the vulnerable moments when she buckled her child into a car seat. I remember a group of fathers scanning the trees around the soccer field where our kids were playing, looking for a gunman. I remember the silence of our local playground, closed until further notice, as perfect autumn afternoons went unclaimed by children cooped up inside.

Was this the war on terror we had heard so much about? After hours of remembering, a detail materialized like a lost sock found days later in the dryer: Everyone assumed it was al-Qaeda. No one I knew thought these murders were the work of just another unhinged American. Though we lead the world in the production of footloose psychopathic killers (for whatever reasons), the timing made us all believe that this spree of death must be another way the outside menace was working itself in.

So, for a brief time, we associated basic acts of living with noble feats of patriotism. We would continue to put gas in our cars, and cross parking lots to go shopping, no matter who might hate our freedoms. “Otherwise, the terrorists win” was not yet an entirely ironic remark.

Three horrible weeks ended without struggle at a quiet rest stop on a Maryland freeway. A man and a teenager, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, united by damage and need, were captured while sleeping in the old sedan they had fashioned into a mobile sniper’s nest. The 10 killings and three maimings they wrought in the Washington area turned out to be part of a continent of killings that had begun on the opposite coast.

I wonder now if this bizarre episode played some small part in the tragedy of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Not everyone agrees, of course — but I think Iraq was a failure of understanding plus an excess of urgency. We moved too quickly to address a problem we didn’t understand.

Can that haste be entirely removed from the geography of lives and loves and fears? Important decisions about national security were being influenced by people — flesh-and-blood human beings — who went home to greet spouses fresh from grocery store parking lots that felt like war zones, and to cuddle children imprisoned for their own safety.

At the last moment when warnings against a reckless war might have found listeners, Washington felt mobilized for battle.

Twenty years later, perhaps the point of all that killing was simply its pointlessness. We want to think we can make sense of death, fend it off by outsmarting it. But death keeps rolling along, picking us off one by one.

“Call me God.” No — my God is a creator, not a nihilist. But all things created must sooner or later pass away: humans, mountains, stars. Death gives life shape and definition, like a canvas to be painted or a song to be sung. So live now — with urgency, gratitude and love.