One afternoon in late September, 2002, I picked my grandmother up at her suburban Maryland assisted living and drove her the very short distance to the strip mall in front of it. We went to Starbucks and I probably got a latte of some sort and she probably had a hot chocolate or an iced tea. Oddly for us, only because we weren't in the habit of doing so and most everything we did seems in retrospect to have been a habitual thing, we sat at a table outside and finished our drinks and chatted.
Maybe a week later, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo drove through that strip mall parking lot and shot and killed a woman - Sarah Ramos, mid-30s, if I've sifted back through the reports correctly - who was sitting on a bench near the Crisp & Juicy Peruvian chicken place and the Honey Baked Ham Store and the post office, just feet away from where my grandmother and I sat that day.
Muhammad and Malvo struck three times in that few-mile radius of the Aspen Hill neighborhood, killing a Metrobus driver at a bus stop right next to the cemetery where my grandmother is buried now and a man pumping gas at a station up the road.
I could not adequately explain for you if I tried what it was like to live here then. The first night of the shootings, October 3, 2002, I was on duty at the counseling center at the school where I work, and we were on lockdown, not allowed to leave. For the next few weeks, as the two traveled around Maryland and Virginia picking people off at shopping centers and gas stations, things went crazy, for lack of a better word.
Witnesses saw white box trucks near the scenes, the police spokespeople said, and let me tell you, if you want to notice that every other vehicle on the road fits the description of a basic white box truck, assume that that sort of vehicle may contain a person aiming a gun right at you, for no reason you can comprehend because no reason exists. We were told to move in zigzags on our way into and out of everywhere, and given that daily activities could not stop due to two lunatics with high-powered rifles terrorizing your region, everywhere you went people were running from doors to vehicles and vice versa in purposeful zigzag or circular motions, crouching down by their cars willing the gas to flow faster into the tank at gas stations, never certain if anything could be enough to dodge unseen bullets.
Just try to stay away from trees, just try. All of a sudden there are forests everywhere, woods edging every parking lot.
A woman died in a Home Depot parking lot. Another while she vacuumed her car, again at a damned gas station. What the hell with the gas stations? A man died cutting his grass, another in a parking lot after buying food for his church at a grocery store. A kid was shot by the side of the road and survived.
Charles Moose, former Montgomery County police chief, updated constantly, all the time. He was to this for me what Peter Jennings was to 9/11. I would have done whatever he said, square dance box steps in parking lots, yoga poses to avoid windows and trees. Whatever.
And I still would have known the whole time that no matter what machinations I went through to avoid it, if someone with a rifle had me in his sights I would have absolutely no idea until it hit me, and then it would be too late. I would have just zigged when he did, not when he zagged.
When the snipers were finally caught, it wasn't in a box truck at all. It was in a late-model sedan, with a hole drilled through the trunk to fit a rifle.
John Muhammad died last night, executed in Jarratt, Va., by lethal injection. I've been thinking about this pretty solid for three days now, when I realized what was happening and why his ex-wife was making the tv rounds, shopping a book she wrote about what was understandably the horror of living with him, claiming a stint in the Gulf War caused the shift in his brain that brought the crazy, the post-traumatic stress that she alleges made him murderous, made him propose to Malvo a utopian community in Canada where only certain people could live.
I wonder if it's possible for a city to have post-traumatic stress disorder, at least the collective that lived here for that period of time in 2002, because for the past few days I've been thinking back to how it felt to be afraid out in the open of an unseen assailant, mindful that I could be killed just by going about my daily business. Because really, even though Muhammad has been incarcerated for years, once you have the knowledge of such a threat you can never not have it. I am weary of violence, in a generation where it seems the mass shooting is a cultural marker, although never done in this piecemeal fashion over a period of weeks like it was when the snipers were roaming around killing people here.
It's insane, it's absurd. It is as weird and terrifying a situation as I hope I ever have to live through.
Gertrude Stein said one of my favorite things: "Considering how dangerous everything is, nothing is really very frightening." Or everything is, depending on how you look at it. I don't remember much about the aftermath of this experience, but I know it was a relief not to be so hypervigilant about my surroundings, to go back to a vague concept of the unseen, unpublicized everyday dangers that still make me case out my fellow customers at the post office or the 7-11, even in the light of day. I'm not really very trusting of others, given all I've seen and heard and read, but I go about my business. There are very few places I won't go, very few places of which I'm actively afraid, but I am always, always aware of my surroundings and who inhabits them, and I will quietly adjust my circumstances if I feel uncomfortable. What good it'll ever do me I have no idea, but it's learned behavior.
I feel so deeply for the people who lost people they loved at that time, like I feel so deeply for the people who lost people at Ft. Hood, for the people of the base who I'm sure now know what it is like to feel unsafe in a place they never dreamed would feel so. I leave the mourning and the right to a reaction to those people, most of all.
All the same, I read some really nasty words yesterday about the execution and I can't bring myself to revel in the death of any human being, to write a profane tweet about it or to otherwise think it has anything to do with me, even as a citizen of the area most affected by his behavior. I don't know how I'd feel if fate had led Muhammad and Malvo to me and my grandmother, who I loved more than almost any other human being on the planet, and if I would have driven myself to Jarratt to watch him die if he'd killed her.
I don't really think I would have, but I don't know, although I like to think I know myself pretty well. This isn't because of anything Jesus is reported to have said about compassion any more than it would have been if the "eye for an eye" approach resonated for me instead. I don't think my feelings about it are anyone's business any more than anyone else's are mine. The person is dead, sure, but the circumstances are different and I just do not think I would feel the sort of closure I may expect going in, but again, I don't know. I cannot put myself in the shoes of those people. I can't feel their pain or their anger or any potential need for revenge.
I think living for some people is worse than dying. I think some people kill and then kill themselves because they are so deeply damaged, and others kill and think it's their right or decree and then stay alive because they are equally damaged in different ways. That some people are evil for reasons no one can understand and that we all live with the fallout to varying degrees of tragedy and pain.
All I keep thinking is that it's sad that it happened at all, that nothing prevented it before so many lives were taken and that nothing can make it better now, not even capital punishment. I wish for good, I wish for better all the time and I'm so despairing when what happens is the opposite that sometimes I think I don't know how to process it at all, that maybe I should be more resolute, more comfortable with an eye for an eye.
I don't even know how to end this, except to say that I feel like things get grayer all the time, and I am so, so sorry for all of those people who took the fall for the rest of us who lived here then, who were lucky enough to dodge the bullets, to be in places where they were not, because that's really what it came down to. I don't have to revel in the death of their killer to wish them peace. I don't have to combine the two in my head at all, and I think that is what I really need to accept, for my own peace of mind, no matter what I think anyone else might think about it.