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Fear lingers in DC area

The snipers have been caught but the climate of fear is lingering for in the DC area.

BY SUSAN KIM | WASHINGTON, D.C. | November 12, 2002

"We make far too much over people's religion."

—Stan Noffsinger

The snipers have been caught but the climate of fear is lingering for some in the DC area.

Many area residents, already feeling like targets for a future terrorist attack since Sept. 11, are experiencing anxiety that just won't go away.

Paul Unruh, a Mennonite Disaster Service community worker who began working with D.C. area churches after Sept. 11, said that sniper fears have been piled on top of lingering anxiety about anthrax and terrorism.

"Some persons in the churches are even more affected by the shootings than I expected them to be," said Unruh following a round of discussions with church leaders.

A Washington Post poll showed half of all Washington area residents felt fear for their own lives during the string of shootings that killed ten people. More than 40 percent of respondents said they avoided outdoor activities.

Children were particularly fearful as schools were locked down and recesses were held indoors.

Many are now wondering, "What's next?"

Others are replacing fear with anger directed at the two men charged in the shootings, John Lee Malvo and John Allen Muhammad, who were handed over to Virginia authorities last week for prosecution on death-penalty murder charges.

Evidence is suggesting 17-year-old John Lee Malvo pulled the trigger on most of the attacks.

But lawyers for the sniper suspects criticized police interrogation of Malvo, and said they would seek to bar his alleged confession from court. Malvo reportedly confessed to being the triggerman in several of the shootings, including the Virginia slaying in which his alleged accomplice, Muhammad, is charged with murder.

Malvo's lawyer, Michael Arif, criticized police for questioning Malvo without his court-appointed guardian or attorney and for leaking the alleged confession to The Washington Post.

Muhammad is said to have trained the teenager as if he were a soldier protégé.

As some prosecutors push the death penalty for both men, church officials are trying to ensure people's anger at John Muhammad does not turn into anger at the wider Islamic community. Discriminatory acts against Muslims rose in the wake of last year's terrorist attacks.

Muhammad's conversion to Islam a few years ago was mentioned prominently in the news immediately after he was caught.

If he had been Catholic or Methodist or Baptist, religion may not have been mentioned, said Stan Noffsinger of the Church of the Brethren emergency response ministries.

"We make far too much over people's religion," he said. "There is good and absence of good in all people's faiths -- the very best of humanity and the very worst of humanity."

Noffsinger said Muhammad's religion should not become part of negative propaganda against the Muslims. "If that's part of a propaganda war we need to stop it. I don't know what we do about it but continue to try to stop it."

If anxiety and anger are two lingering emotions in the wake of the sniper attacks, there are still people grieving for lost loved ones, and other feelings could be sticking around, too.

"Where you have an incident that traumatic and visible I would suspect there are still spiritual care needs," said Rick Augsburger, head of the Church World Service emergency response program.

During the sniper attacks, local churches held prayer services, and community members attended periodic ecumenical gatherings as well.

Perhaps prayer services in the wake of the sniper attacks -- while they have been substantially fewer in number -- are even more important, mused Johanna Olson of Lutheran Disaster Response.

"I can see prayer services being a lot more effective after they've been caught, when people say 'thank God it's over. We grieve for those lost. How do we deal with the residual effects?'" she said.

Faith leaders also said this was an opportunity for suburban D.C. residents to better understand what it's like to live in a culture of violence, to build peace in communities, to advocate against the death penalty, or to fight for better gun control laws.

In the time span the sniper was attacking there were 18 "traditional homicides" in the DC area. They included a congressional intern from Mississippi who was killed in a carjacking outside his home.

These killings were not broadcast across the country.

Cities across the U.S. see similar violence every month. The homicide rate in D.C. - not counting the sniper killings - was more than 200 so far this year, and Baltimore's was even higher. Police said it's hard to classify which of these are random killings since many are still being investigated.

Homicide isn't the only way lives are being wiped out. Millions are in danger of dying from hunger in southern Africa. Some 33 people were killed in this week's severe weather in the south and eastern U.S. And -- a strange statistic recently released from the San Diego police -- more than 15 people are killed each year in that city because of illegal drag racing.

Kathy Kohl, a suburban Maryland pastoral counselor with the ecumenical Pastoral Counseling and Care Ministries, said she has seen people affected by the sniper shootings "becoming more aware of injustices in society, whatever those may be."

On the other hand, telling someone who's newly traumatized by violence that others have long been experiencing such pain can seem patronizing or unsympathetic, pointed out Olson.

"Nobody can fully appreciate what the other is going through. The comparison has a divisive quality."

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