You can't miss the stories. For more than a week newspapers and television broadcasts have been reporting on the Montgomery County sniper, the lunatic(s) who have murdered at least eight people in Maryland, Virginia and Washington as of this writing.
This is scary stuff. When someone is shot in the parking lot of the supermarket where you shop, that's unnerving. When someone is shot at gas stations you sometimes use, that's discomforting. When a bullet goes through the front of a store where you buy art supplies, that's not re-assuring. And when all of this happens within 24 hours, you're suddenly thankful that the local high school has a cop standing out front -- cradling a shotgun.
What started in my neighborhood has now spread elsewhere in Maryland and into Washington and Virginia. People are being killed at gas stations and a 13-year-old child was seriously wounded in front of his school. Crime statistics are no longer abstract numbers. They have meaning when people are hurt, families are destroyed, and a child is in critical condition.
The local Montgomery County community is routinely described in the media as "safe" and "affluent." But no community is perfectly safe. All the gates and guards in the world mean little in the face of insanity.
Local leaders have advised the public to "go about your business" and logic is on their side. There are some 890,000 people in Montgomery County, so the odds are 178,000 to 1 against an encounter with the sniper.
When looking at homes many buyers want to know about schools, commuting, and crime. "Crime" is a code word of sorts because we're not really interested in all crime. We're concerned about physical safety. Think about it this way: No one is physically-threatened by corporate criminals, individuals who routinely live in some of our finer neighborhoods.
"Safety" is another relative concept. There is no such thing as perfect safety and security. You can be diet-conscious, exercise every day, have a black belt in judo, enjoy great genes, drive an armored car, live in a gated community, and still get mugged at the nearest ATM machine.
What draws attention to individual crime sprees is their rarity. For all the worries about "law and order," the fact is that we have an astonishing level of physical security in the U.S. Unlike other countries, company executives are not routinely snatched, busses and discos are not blown up, and for the most part we tend to live fairly well together.
But we have had the Unabomber, the Oklahoma City bombing, and long-ago we had New York's "mad bomber" (as if there were any other kind). We have serial killers, people gone mad, and people who kill because of racial or religious hatred. And beyond crime, the September 11th airline hijackings and the destruction at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were acts of war committed on our soil.
Despite the events of the past few days, life really does go on. But until the sniper is caught or shot -- the outcome foreseen by many locals -- life around here will be a little more chancy then it used to be.