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MD probes new shooting

BY SUSAN KIM | SILVER SPRING, MD | October 22, 2002

"This is so different. I don't know how else to go about it."

—Merrit Schatz

A Tuesday morning shooting -- this one fatally wounding a bus driver as he stood on the steps of his bus -- was being investigated for a connection to the recent sniper attacks wracking the DC area.

At about 6 a.m. in Silver Spring -- an easy walk from where one of the first round of sniper attacks happened -- a 35-year-old father of two was shot in the chest. The bus stop is near an apartment building and a wooded area.

Over the weekend, the shooting of a man who was critically injured was linked to previous sniper attacks.

On Monday police were attempting to communicate with the sniper whose attacks have had people in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia suburbs on edge for weeks.

The suspected sniper allegedly left a message at the scene of Saturday's Ashland, Va. shooting, police said, and after issuing a public plea to communicate with the sniper, police reported they received a phone call but that the audio was muffled.

They issued a public plea for the sniper to communicate again so they could clearly understand.

Meanwhile after police surrounded a white van Monday and took two people into custody in Richmond, Va., the case was found to be unrelated to the sniper.

Over the weekend man was shot and critically injured as he and his wife walked to their car from a steakhouse in the Virginia suburb of Ashland Saturday evening.

Ashland is about 90 miles south of D.C. and 30 miles south of

Fredericksburg, where two other sniper shootings were linked.

As people cowered between gas pumps and their cars, kept their children indoors and hurried across parking lots in a zig-zag pattern meant to dodge a high-powered sight, religious leaders were contemplating how best to help people deal with their fear.

The sniper struck without warning on Oct. 2 and continues to threaten the area's anxious citizens and elude frustrated law enforcement officials. Nine people have been killed and three wounded -- four if the bus stop attack is found to be linked -- including a 13-year-old boy, in the apparently random attacks.

Local pastors have been ministering to fearful flocks since the first spate of six deadly shootings nearly three weeks ago. Faith community leaders are still trying to figure out ways to support those efforts.

"We wrote a letter to congregations giving them scriptural passages, youth-related materials and Web sites that could help them find resources to deal with stress and strife," said Merrit Schatz, disaster response coordinator of the National Capital Presbytery.

In the face of the fear and dread gripping many in the D.C. area, Schatz wonders if that's enough. "We probably ought to be more proactive," she said. "We posted the letter on our Web page, and that means we have to rely on people to regularly look at the site. We would like to have run a bulletin insert."

Looking back on response to 9/11, Schatz said it's hard to apply the lessons learned from that trauma to this one.

"I don't know whether this response will work or not," she said. "This is so different. I don't know how else to go about it."

Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) of the D.C. area helped sponsor a meeting of D.C. Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), said spokesperson David Pearcy.

VOAD groups, loosely connected through a national umbrella VOAD, are in place in many states across the U.S. The D.C. VOAD comprises groups such as the American Red Cross, faith-based disaster response organizations such as LDR, and also representatives from the U.S. Department of Defense and Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Pearcy agreed with Schatz that the sniper trauma is altogether different from 9/11-related fears. "The area does seem to be traumatized more thoroughly and more quickly than with either the 9/11 attack or the anthrax alarm," he said.

Despite that observation VOAD response to the sniper attacks simply hasn't been as rapid or widespread as it was in the wake of 9/11.

"Things have developed so quickly that the school and governmental resource people have not yet even had an opportunity to report back or fully formulate what their findings are in the schools," Pearcy said.

Human resources personnel at The Salvation Army National Capital and Virginia division office, located in D.C., decided to close their offices for half a day Friday because of concern for people's safety, said Molly Lew, disaster services coordinator. But, she added, "there has been no divisional response, there hasn't been a cohesive effort."

Which leaves local pastors still largely without support.

Local faith communities have hosted prayer vigils and local discussions, but ultimately the collective anxiety is difficult to address, said David Henry of the United Church of Christ National Disaster Ministries Network. "How we're going to deal with that fear as a society is extraordinarily difficult," he said.

Bill Devlin, vice president of the faith-based Urban Family Council based in Philadelphia, wondered if clergy could do more to help people cope.

"We had a shooting over the weekend in Philadelphia, and the media -- as they always do -- immediately calls the psychologist community, not clergy, when they want to talk about the traumatic effect."

If clergy became, in essence, more visible moral spokespeople, their capacity to provide spiritual care would grow, Devlin suggested.

Even with stepped-up visibility for local religious leaders, Devlin said living in the face of danger or fear comes down to neighbor helping neighbor. "I call this the 'Good Samaritan strategy.' "

In suburbia, people often don't know their neighbors, he pointed out. "You hit the clicker on your garage door and you're safely ensconced with your cable TV. Five, seven, ten years go by...

"Come outside your cave. Know who your neighbor is. That's the illusion of living in the suburbs -- that everybody is fine. Well, not everybody's fine."

Random deaths have hit middle-to-upper-middle income suburban residents particularly hard, added Schatz, because they -- and their pastors -- haven't collectively had to deal with such violence before. "Many other neighborhoods have had to deal with this for some time, and their pastors have been dealing with this issue theologically as well."

Unlike the sniper shootings, being randomly "caught in the crossfire" is usually related to a drug-related shooting, robbery, gang violence or other social problem, observed Schatz, "so people who don't live in neighborhoods with those problems consider themselves less vulnerable."

Pastors who have long advocated for violence prevention have pointed out that, in a society where sniper and assault rifles have become a staple of the gun market, everyone should feel vulnerable.

Any person 18 or older who can pass a Brady background check can buy a 50-caliber sniper rifle. The .223 Remington round allegedly used in most of the recent sniper shootings was originally developed as a round for the U.S. military's assault rifle, the M-16. The sniper culture is also increasingly promoted through books, videos, and the Internet.

One of the most visible "counter-violence" initiatives in the face of the sniper attacks has come not from area churches but from members of the Guardian Angel crime prevention league. Over the weekend, Guardian Angels were pumping gas at local gas stations as a community service while citizens stayed in their cars.

As the tools of violence become increasingly available, another Washington area pastor suggested local faith communities could provide an expanded "spiritual presence" that could prove helpful.

"Sanctuary takes on a different meaning," said the Rev. David Carter-Rimbach, pastor at the Linden Linthicum United Methodist Church in Clarksville, Md. "For centuries, people sought sanctuary in churches. Once again, the churches need to be seen as safe havens from something that's out there that people are apprehensive about."

The Good Samaritan strategy involves more than just an occasional nicety, added Devlin. "I've never liked that bumper sticker that says 'Practice random acts of kindness.' They shouldn't be random. They should be planned.

"Whoever's doing the attacks has a plan. How many people plot and plan to do good?"

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Related Links:

National Capital Presbytery Web site

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