OP-EDS

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October 25, 2002

On understanding tragedy

With yesterday's arrests of John Allen Muhammad and his stepson John Lee Malvo, the sniper attacks seem to have come to an end after three weeks. While there is obviously more to be said on the matter, the attacks are conceivably over. Now begins the difficult task of understanding, reacting to, and overcoming the unthinkable acts that paralyzed and captivated Washington as well as the nation. This particular difficult task is, unfortunately, not a new one.

Before the collective consciousness undertakes the charge of coming to terms with the sniper attacks, Americans must consider the reactions to national tragedies in the past in order to inform our decisions, to avoid the missteps of the past. Pearl Harbor was the germ of internment. The first World Trade Center attack and Oklahoma City raised the specter of terrorism to the forefront of the public pysche, and affected the media's approach to national calamity. A year and change after September 11, America is still endeavoring to understand what we must take from that horrific day. We can point to increased airline security and efforts to both apprehend those responsible and ensure that nothing of the sort ever happens again. At the same time, the extended aftermath of September 11 led to racial profiling, anti-Muslim violence, jingoistic rhetoric (in the political theater and elsewhere), and unsettling and unproductive partisan discord.

There are similar pitfalls into which we as a society can fall in the aftermath of the sniper shootings. Gun control supporters and opponents will clamor for new policies. The ongoing trauma of racial profiling may reassert itself. In short, there will be an impetus to make uninformed decisions out of fear. Balanced people should not be swayed by extreme views on these matters. There is speculation about connections that the sniper may have had and groups he may have belonged to. This should not unduly color our thinking. Americans tend to feel vulnerable in the aftermath of a crisis. We need to ask ourselves whether this was an abberation or symptomatic of some unattended social disease. We do not suggest that the public ignore the importance of these tragic events, only that it see them in their broad context. The sniper attacks ended the lives of 10 innocent Americans. Our duty is to make sense of this disaster, both in private and public. Partisanship and fear will do nothing but compound the tragedy.