Sniper Terrorism

Running on Empty: Life in the Days of Sniper Terrorism
by Rus VanWestervelt
copyright 2002

The needle on my gas gauge drops another notch toward “E,” and I know I am just a few fumes away from the bright red “fill tank soon” warning that lets me know I’m in a do-or-die situation: either get gas now, or run dry and walk to get gas later. My choice, really. It should be a no-brainer.

And usually it is. But these days, I’d be just as stupid to pull into that station—especially around or just after rush hour. Am I being any less stupid to think that I probably won’t be the next victim of the sniper currently terrorizing my community?

My 6-year-old daughter has not played outside in three weeks. Her school continues to be in lockdown, a term she refers to casually now over dinner, and I refuse to take her to any of the area parks (most of them are gated shut anyway). Just like the gas stations, and just like the superstores, they are all located—for our convenience—just seconds from a beltway, an interstate, a highway.

Easy on–off access. Designed to make our lives convenient, efficient, normal.


Forget about any hope of living life “like normal,” as we have been encouraged to do by local politicians and law enforcement officials. The definition of normal continues to change, a fluid interpretation that is redefined every time a .223 hits its target: an innocent mother, son, grandfather who was still living by yesterday’s definition of normal.

Normal is now thinking like an undercover security agent wherever you go. A once-normal trip to get groceries means that my wife takes the kids out of the van while I scan the area, looking for prime hiding grounds where a sniper may lie, waiting for a clean shot.

I now live my life eliminating possibilities.

The store blocks the south, and the west is filled with brick buildings. So I look to the east and see a small clearing between two businesses. Just beyond the clearing is a quiet road with a wooded area beyond that. I have never noticed that patch of woods. But now, I do. By my estimate, there’s maybe 150 yards between us. We are right in his range, I think to myself, and I can’t see beyond the first line of trees.

Two years ago we got a small taste of terrorism when a local resident named Joseph Palczynski eluded police for 13 days in Baltimore County after killing 3 people, all for the chance to reunite with his ex-girlfriend. But that was a terminal bout with fear. When a SWAT team pumped 27 bullets into Palczynski and freed three hostages, we all breathed a sigh of relief that the reign of terror was over. Bill Toohey, spokesperson for the Baltimore County Police Department, said we could all get on with our lives as normal and with no fear. And he was right; we could, and we did, for a year or so. Then 9/11 happened, and our vulnerability as a nation became horrifyingly clear.

P.S.: Your children are not safe anywhere, at anytime.

On October 2, 2002, it stopped being about our nation. It became personal.

Normal is now thinking like a master chess player, maybe three or four moves ahead of where you are. You map out the escape routes he might take, the easy access ramps he might use to slip onto highways. Then you react by packing people around you like pawns who will take a hit before you find yourself in check. You want to be ahead of the game, smarter than your opponent, cheat fate.

Normal is now thinking like the executioner himself. You picture yourself as a target, viewed through the scope, tracked, locked in. Maybe I’ve already been tracked, you think, but the timing was just not right, or a traffic signal had turned green earlier than expected. Maybe you were just part of the rehearsal before the real hit. Maybe.

Empty gas stations, all day. I notice that the gas gauge in my car is getting lower. My wife worries. She wants to come with me to get gas. “Better in numbers,” she says. But the kids will be with us, I think, and I don’t really want them to witness my execution, should that actually happen.

So I let the gas needle fall closer to “E” for another day and spend the extra time with my family. These days, I cannot hold my children long enough.

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