From October 2 – 24, 2002 the Washington D.C. metropolitan area was paralyzed in fear. A killer was at-large. His motivations were completely random but, his methods were entirely effective. Our news outlets branded him “The Beltway Sniper.”
The Beltway Sniper was discovered to be two men; John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, 47 and 17 years old respectively.
With a Bushmaster XM-15 (the same type of rifle used a decade later to kill 20 first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary) Muhammad and Malvo took to the streets in a mobile “pillbox.” A 1990 Chevrolet Caprice with a small hole bored next to the license plate for targeting and killing innocent Americans.
Their motivations will always be a mystery. Probably as much to them as it is to us, but what we do know is that whatever their inspiration, the result was domestic terrorism of the first order.
If you lived in the D.C. area, you’ll remember a public outcry as police tried feverishly to narrow the field of suspects. You’ll remember baseless “leads” like suggestions that the crimes were perpetrated from a white panel truck. You might even remember changing family plans because of your very natural fear which was leaving home.
But, the thing that sticks out in my mind some 14 years later is the sight of grown men and women, in their own country, hunched over at the waist, walking in zig-zag patterns from their cars to the mini-mart when refueling.
Today, as I’m sure you’ve already pieced together, is the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks in New York, Washington D.C., and Somerset County, PA.
It is also Grandparent’s Day.
I mention the story of the Beltway Sniper because though I’ve earned a degree from the US Naval Academy and have served our Navy for some 15 years, my purest learning experience on how to respond to “terrorism” came from my grandmother during Muhammad and Malvo’s road-trip of terror.
It is absolutely worth mentioning, my grandmother is probably the most worrisome person I’ve ever known. Probably the most worrisome person you’ve ever known. Her nuanced understanding of “what can go wrong” makes State Farm Risk Assessors look amateurish. If you introduce her grandchildren as the recipient of whatever the offensive plausible outcome, her sense of danger can reach previously unrecorded heights.
Her brain is awash in cortisol so my family’s doesn’t have to be. Her reward for shouldering low-grade stress for the better part of her life is three grown children, eight healthy grandkids, and a growing number of great-grandchildren.
If you guessed something like the Beltway Sniper would induce sheer, unadulterated panic in a woman like my grandmother, I wouldn’t blame you.
But…You’d be wrong.
While the rest of the world hunched over, and walked in zig-zag patterns to pay for gas, my grandmother stood ramrod. She walked as a Captain walks the decks of his ship. As that fiery field-Sergeant in all the war movies who seems immune to bullets and shrapnel. In the height of the attacks, with her family questioning, “just what in the hell has gotten into her”, she routinely got out of her car and filled its tank with gas. And in doing this simple, seemingly insignificant chore, forever etched herself in my memory as the picture of bravery and the personified middle-finger, terrorism so justly deserves. She is a hero of mine, and I hope that on this fifteenth anniversary of the worst terrorist attack our nation has ever faced, she can serve as an example to you.
Calm, resolute, non-prejudiced, open, brave, All-American.
Our family has been closely affected by the attacks on September 11, 2001. We’ve lost family and friends to war. Our lives have been shaped by them. We’ve come to know people, who regrettably, are more close to the tragedy than even us. I think it is safe to say, our collective advice is not to let those gut wrenching feelings of loss well up in your mind’s eye. Not to let feelings of hatred and bigotry provide their expedient answers. But rather, to hug your children a bit tighter today. Mourn less, hike more. And while you walk and talk with those you hold most dear…just pay attention. Don’t let the moments mindlessly slip by. Pay attention.
With Love. Without fear,