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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 October, 2003, 09:23 GMT 10:23 UK
Sniper-hit county emerges from fear
BBC News Online's Rachel Clarke
By Rachel Clarke
BBC News Online in Montgomery County, Maryland

The community most targeted by the 2002 Washington-area sniper attacks has learned to laugh again, though lingering anxieties remain for some residents.

Dudley Warner at the Montgomery County Crisis Center
Dudley Warner is watching for signs of stress in the community
The shootings began and ended in Montgomery County and claimed six lives in the hitherto quiet suburb just north of the US capital.

For three weeks, parents were nervous of letting their children walk to school or play outside, and drivers hid in their cars while using petrol stations, fearful that they could become the next victims of the killer or killers who seemed to be picking targets at random.

Residents now describe what amounted to a huge collective sigh of relief when two suspects were caught and the killings stopped.

But the intense stress of the first three weeks of October 2002 added to other pressures brought about by tragedies and alerts may have changed the community for ever.

The Pentagon was struck in the attacks of 11 September 2001 and another plane which crashed in Pennsylvania after a passenger revolt was probably also aimed at Washington.

Shortly afterwards, senators in Washington were among those targeted in a wave of anthrax attacks.

Then the sniper attacks began and Montgomery County was now not suffering along with other areas, but seemed to have been singled out.

And after the killings stopped, the terror alerts did not, with Washington area residents among those advised to prepare emergency kits including plastic sheeting and strong adhesive tape should the capital be hit by a biological attack.

Different perceptions

Dudley Warner saw various sides of the situation - as someone who lived in the area with his family and at his work helping others to cope through the Montgomery County Crisis Center in Rockville.

Even before the sniper attacks, there was a new atmosphere with people being told that "things will never be the same" after 11 September.

Erica Royal at a Montgomery County strip mall
Anniversary coverage is making Erica Royal nervous again
"The stage was set for people to perceive things in a different way," Mr Warner told BBC News Online.

Whereas before, such shootings would have prompted thoughts of a deranged individual acting alone, now residents had to contend with the possibility they were under concerted terrorist attack.

And while other disasters in recent memory - such as the Oklahoma City bombing, the crash of TWA Flight 800 or even the collapse of the World Trade Center - were single events which could be addressed even as the horror sank in, for a time there was no end in sight to the sniper killings.

"Typically a crisis occurs and then you work through it, come to terms with what the loss has been and what you need to do," Mr Warner explained.

"For three weeks that couldn't happen. There weren't more than a few days that went by before someone got shot. That made it more difficult to deal with."

Anniversary concerns

While the suspects were still at large, Montgomery County, through health professionals such as Mr Warner and its county executive Douglas Duncan, encouraged people to acknowledge their concerns and seek counselling if they felt overwhelmed.

That approach is continuing and has been given new impetus with the launch of the Healing Project in the county to coincide with the anniversary of the shootings.

With the beginning of the trial of the elder suspect, John Allen Muhammad, set to bring the case back into the headlines, the project aims to educate the public about post-traumatic stress disorder and to provide resources to tackle it.

Researchers believe that incidences of the disorder ease off after an initial surge when a crisis occurs, but rise again around the first anniversary.

Arthur Buncombe, a worker in Montgomery County
Arthur Buncombe says he always stays positive
Mr Warner said he and his colleagues had not yet seen a spike in people seeking help but possible strains from the sniper aftermath needed to be something they were aware of, particularly because sufferers may not associate their unease with events from last year.

There remains help and understanding for those who suffered the most, those who survived an attack or who lost relatives or friends.

But the trials, anniversaries, books and television movies about the snipers may bring everything back for those on the periphery.

"All of these things make it hard to forget... it clearly did affect the community," Mr Warner said.

Residents remember

At a shopping centre in Rockville this month, people were going about their business with nothing to betray the terror of 2002. At the petrol station across the street people chatted to each other as they filled up their cars while shoppers paused outside to look at supermarket offers on plants.

Yet everyone can remember their fear and while some say things returned to normal when the suspects were arrested, others admit to lingering unease about what crisis will be next or simply say they now take more notice of their surroundings.

"At the time I was very nervous, it felt terrible, it felt like you didn't want to be outside, you were nervous just going to the store," said Alice Nappy. "Once the suspects were caught it was all over."

Arthur Buncombe works outside helping people load groceries into their cars. But even in such an exposed position he said he had no concerns: "You have to think positive."

The scene of one of the sniper attacks in Montgomery County
A year ago, petrol stations were dangerous places to be
Erica Royal said the anniversary and the intense media coverage planned for the trials was beginning to make her feel nervous and sad all over again. "You move on with your life but a year later it suddenly comes back," she said.

But while life may never be the same again, not all the changes are for the worse. People report others being kinder and gentler than before, having more community spirit.

And while no-one would expect a good reaction to a joke about a man in a car with a gun, residents were quick to make fun of contradictory government advice about creating safe rooms with plastic sheeting and adhesive tape, Mr Warner said.

At the height of the sniper attacks, humour felt inappropriate even as a way to cope. But a few months later, the jokes showed the community was healing. "We made fun of the duct tape," said Mr Warner. "We are all in this together."

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