Normal people, living amid abnormal danger

CHARLES MOOSE, the police chief in Montgomery County, thinks it was unwise for the governor of Maryland to call the sniper a coward, apparently because such public name-calling is counterproductive in the delicate "dialogue" the police are trying to establish with this killer. "The governor's training is not in the law enforcement field," Moose said. "I am convinced the governor will never do that again."

And he hasn't.

But I wouldn't knock him if he did. Really. What's more cowardly than what this sniper has been doing? I can think of only a few things - the abuse of children or the elderly maybe - as being more unmanly than this.

Here in the world of normal people - out here, where most of us have a life and where this armed loser obviously has been unable to function - that's a given. Coward.

Some people think the sniper is a terrorist operating in the suburbs of the nation's capital to terrify middle-class Americans in the midst of their ordinary, daily routines. It's a tempting theory to accept, and I think a lot of people want to believe it because they don't want to believe that one of our own could be doing this to innocent people.

I concede that the terrorist theory is attractive, but for one thing - terrorists are usually willing to die for their beliefs. They are willing to kill themselves to make their grand, twisted statements against all the Great Satans of the world.

But not this one. He's too gutless to go for it.

He hides in the woods and shoots people he doesn't know.

He might think he's God, but five gets me 20 he's just another in a long line of pathetic losers. No brass - he doesn't even sign his name to the things he writes.

Pardon me while I ramble through this jungle.

Pardon me while I contribute to the huge amount of newsprint and ink already wasted on this sniper story. I guess I'm just angry, like the rest of us.

A bus driver, for God's sake. A guy doing his job, standing on his platform.

A woman putting merchandise in the trunk of her car with her husband. Men pumping gas on their way home.

All shot at a distance by some coward empowered by a gun.

Every time we think we've seen the ultimate sickie, someone else comes along to top him.

And we must once again explain to children how the world we brought them into is full of madmen, idiots, zealots and cowards, and these madmen, idiots, zealots and cowards have easy access to guns and explosives. We've had soccer games canceled and schools in lockdown. We've had senseless pain and suffering inflicted on innocent people. For what?

We don't even know.

We're still not exactly sure what 9/11 was all about.

I don't think anyone has taken credit for the anthrax mailings last year, either.

None of this is easily explained to children - why some people want to cause pain in others with whom they have no obvious quarrel.

So, in the midst of this insanity, with things so crazy and murky, the given and the granted must be stated, almost as a prayer - that we value life, and believe in human rights, the progress of society and the rule of law. We work to these ends. We savor them as ideals. We are a big, muscular, diverse, resilient and freedom-loving people. We know that not everyone loves us, but we still offer a pretty good deal for most people willing to work toward the American dream.

Last year, on 9/11, we experienced an attack from the outside world.

This sniper - whether domestic or foreign - has created a new nightmare in our midst, where we live. He has brought random death to the suburbs. He is doing something unique - cowardly but unique.

The other day on Preston Street, I stood outside Angel Dawson's rowhouse, which had been firebombed the day before. The mother and her five children died, the apparent targets of someone who wanted to stop Angel Dawson, a vigilant citizen, from trying to make her neighborhood livable and free of drug dealers. It occurred to me, as it often does during walks through certain Baltimore neighborhoods, that many of our fellow citizens live with a simmering kind of terror all the time. There's a vein of sickness in the land, and it keeps popping up and poisoning this American life - in some places more than others.

This time, it's popping up in the suburbs of Washington.

I'm sorry to be feeding this monster.

Too much good newspaper space already has been taken up by the sniper's killings. But we're all angry out here, wishing this coward will do the right thing, write a goodbye note and escape straight to hell. This time, maybe the coward will sign his name.

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