Battle Zone: Green Lawns And SUVs

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The serial sniper's reign of terror has turned life upside down in Washington's affluent suburbs. Veteran CBS News Producer Brian Healy talks about family life in this unlikely battle zone.
I have never experienced fear as I do now - living in Montgomery County, Maryland.

And I've been in some dodgy places in my 30 years at CBS News.

A dozen years ago I slept in a hotel in Northern Israel when Israeli artillery batteries behind the hotel fired into Southern Lebanon. Katyusha rockets snaked over our head in reply. It happened every night. So I went to sleep.

When my wife and I and our two-year old daughter lived in London in the late 70's, the IRA detonated bombs in the City Center. We were nervous, but not frightened.

One day in the Gaza Strip a few years back, our Hamas guide told us it was time to leave -- fast. Some men had pulled up in an old Mercedes and were headed our way.

"It's best that you not be here," he whispered. Later that night, the camera crew and I had dinner in Jerusalem and wondered what might have happened.

Now, I am more frightened when I wake up in my home in Kensington in Montgomery County. It is one of the nation's most affluent suburbs. And five people have been killed on its streets in the past two weeks.

The killings in the Maryland suburbs have introduced a level of fear into my family's life I have never experience before.

It has gotten personal.

One mile from my house, a woman was gunned down vacuuming her car at a local Shell gas station. It was the station where I and my wife and my grown up children gas the family cars. A close friend used to own it. The vacuum was next to the air pump we use to fill our car and bicycle tires. The fatal shot, police say, came from the parking lot of the Safeway where we shop. Across the street from where we bank.

I used the ATM the other night and could see the flowers that have been placed near the site of the killing. I saw a sign that proclaimed, "Thou Shall Not Kill," that someone had pasted on the vacuum cleaner.

Sonny Buchanan was shot along Rockville Pike mowing the lawn - in front of the Chili's Restaurant where my son worked this summer. A mile from my daughter's Catholic high school.

This weekend my daughter's homecoming dance was canceled. Her field hockey games were canceled. Her basketball games have been canceled.

My 13-year-old son goes to a school around the corner from our house. He is no longer allowed to walk home alone. An adult has to be with him in the afternoon. In the morning, my wife drives the three blocks to school.

My wife then goes to her job in Silver Spring, Md., where she is a fourth grade teacher at Cresthaven Elementary School.

For most of the last two weeks she has been teaching under what is called CODE BLUE. She teaches in a portable classroom. Doors are locked. For the first few days, children could not leave the classroom. Food from the cafeteria was brought to them. Teachers and parents escorted the children to the bathroom, serving as guards and shields.

The children can now go in pairs as a teacher or parent watches them. Parents sit by the front doors as security guards. There is no outside recess.

At dismissal time, the children are gathered inside a small auditorium and released only when their bus arrives. They rush to the busses.

When my wife and I come home there are new rules. All the blinds and shades are closed at night. The car is parked closer to the house in the driveway - never on the street.

People who used to jog in a nearby park don't go there any more. The Washington Beltway runs along the side of the park. People jog in the neighborhood instead.

When we go to the shopping mall, which is rarely, we now seek out the dark areas to park. Avoid the lights. If we can't park close to the stores, we drive away.

My wife and I and our friends look for gas stations that provide the most cover. Our favorite has a wall that blocks all access from the south. The garage blocks the western angle, the pumps block the eastern side and a volunteer fire department covers our backs from the north.

These are the things we think about now.

My wife has a colleague who has his own gas station routine. He puts in his credit card and walks around the car and crouches until the card is approved. He then puts the pump handle on automatic, enters his car, and lies on the floor until the tank is filled.

He is young, strong and athletic. His father was a D.C. policeman. He used to jog behind the Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Maryland in Prince Georges County. The sniper shot a 13-year old boy at that school. He doesn't jog there any more.

A man was killed next to the Home Depot where I have shopped. A woman was killed next to a HoneyBaked Ham shop where we get the holiday ham. Another man was killed next to the Motor Vehicles office where I renew my driver's license.

People in my neighborhood were not blind to the shootings that take place too often in the nearby District of Columbia. We have all seen the horrible sniper killings in the Balkans. Many of us have either been to Israel or known people who live there.

But knowing about danger places and living in them are totally different things.

Now we lock the doors, put on the security lights and hug our children a little tighter before bed.

Then we wait for the sniper to strike again.

  • Dan Collins

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