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Superpower under sniper siege
- With random killer on the prowl, Washington way of life changes

Washington, Oct. 17: America’s national capital area, home to famous museums, elegant edifices such as the Capitol and the sprawling mall with its monuments, could now well be in Afghanistan.

Or in the Balkans. Or in the Colombian province of Medellin where the writ of the drug barons rather than the government runs.

The US army’s RC-7 Airborne Reconnaissance Low aircraft drones over your residence day and night. It is looking for a white van or truck used by a sniper who has killed nine people at random and critically injured two others in 12 days, two of them Indians.

Police sirens wail intermittently, disturbing the tranquillity of autumn nights. Rows of restaurants in Washington and the neighbouring states of Maryland and Virginia have a new look: no more outside eating. The chairs and tables placed amid rows of flowerpots or under beach umbrellas have all been removed.

Residential parking lots get filled early in the evenings: people head straight home from work. No more stopovers at bars to take advantage of the “Happy Hour”, usually between 5 and 7 pm.

Shopping area parking lots, on the other hand, are thinner. Those who shop are nervous, looking for empty slots to park their cars as close to the shops as possible.

Mothers with children dart out of shops and literally run to their cars, huddling their packages and the kids together. Some of the shootings have been at shopping centres. The latest, on Monday night, killed a woman who was working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as she was loading shopping packages in her car.

At petrol stations, drivers park in the middle row of pumps and often hide between structures as their cars are tanked up.

At many filling stations, volunteers from the local church are filling petrol for frightened drivers.

Fifty-four-year-old Premkumar Walekar from Maharashtra was killed with a single shot in his chest on Gandhi Jayanti as he was putting petrol in his taxi cab at the start of his driving shift.

But there is no guarantee that anyone is safe from the sniper if you avoid shops or petrol stations. Twenty-two-year-old Rupinder Oberoi, who works for a liquor store in Silver Spring on the border between Washington and Maryland, was merely taking a walk with his boss when he was shot, splintering his kidneys, liver, diaphragm and colon. He survived.

That was actually on September 14 and until the shootings started in quick succession on October 2, no one linked Oberoi’s case to the sniper.

In Maryland’s Montgomery County, where the shooting spree started a fortnight ago, economic development officials and business leaders have not measured the impact of the sniper. They do not want to add to the worries of an economy which is already depressed.

But unofficial estimates put the business loss at about 25 per cent in the capital region. This is something the area can ill afford.

In the aftermath of September 11, many restaurants in downtown Washington, desperate for clientele, have been offering free wine with dinner. Or one free entree with another purchased.

And on occasions, Metro has been free to attract people downtown. The area was barely recovering when the sniper struck.

Children are among the worst affected. They can’t ride bikes anymore. Parents allow them to play only in the backyards, not in front of their houses.

In cars, they are not allowed to look out of the windows and are often asked to sit towards the middle of the rear seats.

Worse, all outdoor activities have been cancelled in many schools. A survey of 26 middle and high schools Montgomery County showed that 15 to 25 students at each school have sought out crisis counselling.

To add to the worries here, America is now getting a taste of the medicine it applied on South Asia during the mid-year Indo-Pakistan crisis. The Canadian Automobile Association has asked Canadians to avoid Washington and nearby areas.

The army’s RC-7 planes now circling the capital area have been used a spotters in the conflict-ridden Balkans and for anti-drug campaigns in the Caribbean and in Colombia.

It has electro-optical and infra-red sensors which can detect a muzzle flash from a gun on the ground. It can spot a vehicle from the air and by comparing emissions produce data on where it has been before.

With all that equipment and resources deployed to catch a criminal, the sniper ought to be a phantom. If only it were not for the dead bodies that are piling up.

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