Guest Rambles from Maryland

My good friend Jay is, in addition to his many other diverse interests from military history to birdwatching, an amateur genealogist. He recently sent me a hot tip that the 1880 U.S. census is now online courtesy of the Mormon Church. It took 17 years for church volunteers to transcribe all the handwritten documents and put them online at FamilySearch, but you can now read about your obscure relatives or famous people like Frederick Douglass.

My friend Jay, in addition to his interest in genealogy, also happens to live in Maryland near the erstwhile sniper’s hunting grounds. I asked him what it was like these days, and this is what he wrote.

My wife woke me at 6:30 AM Thursday morning, crying. She had been watching CNN. I was expecting to hear her tell me about the next victim of the D.C. area sniper. Is this one closer to our home, I thought. Instead, she said “They caught them.” It was over.

I work in Rockville, but live near Baltimore, so the everyday impact of the three week reign of the sniper had not been as acute as it was for those who lived in Montgomery County and Bowie in MD, and Virginia along I-95. But it had certainly seeped into our mundane everyday activities. A low fuel gauge in my car would propel me into unfamiliar decision-making terrain. Where do I gas up? The characteristics that made my usual station preferable – easy access to the major highway – was now a disqualifier. I brought a brown bag lunch to work to avoid going out at mid-day. Intellectually, you know that statistically the odds are extremely low that you will be a target. And, normally, people take a measure of re-assurance at some subconscious level by rationalizing, often a touch judgmentally — oh, that bad thing will not happen to me because I don’t associate with those types of people, or I don’t go into that bad neighborhood, or I don’t engage in that risky behavior. But these rationalizations clearly didn’t apply here, and that is why your intellectual side fought a slow losing battle against your growing anxiety. The slow losing battle turned into an outright rout when the young schoolboy was shot and when the sniper put us on notice that he was coming after our children.

More generally, during the three week period, I caught myself taking grim stock of each day’s top stories. Killer on the loose. Terrorists re-grouping. Steadily increasing drumbeats of war in Iraq. Economy is down the tubes. Boy, remember the late 90’s? Clearly, the naive optimism (and, I daresay, smugness) of those heady days when the Cold War was a memory and we were ‘safe’ within our protective and speculative bubble was not warranted and a correction was due. And, excepting the tragedies that refocused us, that change in perspective is not unhealthy. It’s just that it seems the pendulum has swung way too far. Now every day we have to worry about threats to us from ‘failed states’ on the other side of the world and ‘failed individuals’ on the other side of Main Street who lash out at people going about their lives. I can’t express the relief that the culprits in the sniper shootings were caught. But that same day, the government announced now-familiar vague warnings based on intelligence concerning terrorist actions against American railways. One danger is removed, another takes its place.

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