Out of sniper’s range, a secondhand fear

For the parents of Amsalu Dabela ’04 and Ellen Dabela ’06, a trip up to Yale for Parents’ Weekend from their Washington, D.C., suburb of Bethesda, Md., provided more than just a good chance to spend time with their daughters. It also served as a welcome respite from the fear and paranoia that has gripped the nation’s capital for the past two weeks. On Oct. 2, an unknown sniper shot the first of his 11 victims; as of Thursday, nine were dead and two had been wounded.

“Life is more normal outside of the D.C. area,” Amsalu Dabela said. “In D.C., people don’t want to be targets so they don’t want to be out in the open.”

Three hundred miles up the coast, many Yale students seem to be absorbed in the bubble of undergraduate life and detached from the reality of a killing spree unfolding in the suburbs of the District of Columbia. Those who hail from the Washington area are more acutely aware of the sobering news from home.

In Bethesda, just beyond the stately foreign embassies of northwest Washington, life has been put on hold, Amsalu Dabela said. The streets, once buzzing with the activity of joggers, families and everyday citizens, are now deserted, leaving cars as one of the few reminders of humanity. Most restaurants have brought their outdoor seating inside. Even the familiar rites of youth and adolescence — recess in the schoolyard, high school football games, and homecoming dances — have almost all been cancelled or postponed indefinitely.

The psychological toll on the community has been enormous, affecting the way Washington, D.C., residents approach the rituals of daily life such as pumping gas, loading groceries into the car, or merely stepping outside the front door, several students said.

“My mom minimizes her time being out of the house,” Amsalu Dabela said. “She doesn’t leave the house unless she absolutely needs to.”

Walter Pincus, a visiting political science professor who covers U.S. intelligence for The Washington Post, commutes to Yale every week from his home in Washington, D.C. In the 46 years he has lived inside the Beltway, Pincus said he has “never seen anything like this.”

“For us it’s a major local story,” he said. “Someone shooting 11 people randomly hasn’t happened [here] before.”

Because he lives in a metropolitan neighborhood rather than an outlying suburb, Pincus said his community has not experienced the effects of the sniper’s attacks as significantly as other areas have. He added that the sniper has been seeking out areas that are near major highway arteries that would serve as “escape routes.”

Pincus said, however, that he and his wife have been more conscious of their surroundings since the killings and have been on the lookout for white vans. When his wife wanted to walk their dog on a Saturday night instead of their usual morning walk, Pincus said he was concerned about her safety and asked her not to go out at that time.

For Diana Aleman ’04, the sniper’s path of destruction came especially close. Her boyfriend was working in his Washington, D.C., office when the gunman fired a fatal shot near the building. He called her, assuring her that he was safe. Now, she says, she’s been checking The Washington Post’s Web site “20 times daily” to see if everything is under control.

“I was terrified because I knew where it took place,” she said. “I’ve been very worried.”

Aleman was additionally concerned because her boyfriend is Indian, and one of the victims was also of Indian heritage. She initially thought the crimes may have been racially motivated but now is less sure whether the gunman discriminates among his victims.

At Yale, Aleman said she has encountered an interesting mix of reactions from other students. She said a lot of people are unaware that a sniper has been plaguing the nation’s capitol, saying “Sniper? What sniper?” To some students who have been following current events, however, the impending showdown with Iraq looms as a larger concern on the national agenda.

Marcus Davis ’05, who was born and raised in Washington, D.C., said the issue has been very personal.

“I think everyone’s anxious,” Davis said. “It’s a scary thought. My high school has closed down every outdoor event and it has interrupted a lot of traditions.”

Although District residents have altered their usual routines in the wake of the murders, Davis feels that life must proceed.

“My dad’s a little nervous when he pumps his gas but people still have to live,” he said.

Thomas Cannell ’06, who attended Potomac High School in Maclean, Va., near the location of one of the shootings, said he feels a sense of separation from the paranoia because he is at Yale but is still concerned about the welfare of loved ones back home.

“The sniper business is another terrifying thing in a string of terrifying things,” he said. “It started with the terrorist attacks and continued with anthrax, and now there’s this.”

Pincus said he did not think the gunman was part of a terrorist organization such as al-Qaida, nor did he think he was another Timothy McVeigh, whose killings were fueled by a hatred of the federal government.

“If he’s upset at government, this doesn’t do anything,” Pincus said. “[He’s] somebody who is frustrated, and this is one way to become an important figure.”

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