October 27, 2002

The Wicked Witch is Dead

She’s dead. You killed her.
Hail to Dorothy. The Wicked Witch is dead.

Chorus: Hail to Dorothy. The Wicked Witch is dead.

The Wizard of Oz

It wasn’t exactly like that.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s third book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Return of the King Sam awakens from what he thinks has been merely a long bad dream to discover that Gandalf has returned from Death and that he, himself, thought he was dead. “What’s happened to the world?” Sam asks. Gandalf replies “A great evil has departed from the world” and laughs. And Sam bursts into tears, because he had not heard the “sounds of merriment, of pure joy” for days uncounted (thanks for the reference Adam).

Well, it wasn’t exactly like that either. I am relieved but haven’t felt any overwhelming catharsis. It’s much more subtle and subdued than that. The conclusion is amazing in an intellectual sort of way. If we hadn’t lived under a cloud for the last three weeks, I would simply be pouring over the particulars of the end in detail, like a good mystery novel. And, in fact, part of me wants to know the specifics of John Allen Muhammad’s life. It deflects the reality of the spell Muhammad tried to cast over us. It reduces him.

In the end John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo weren’t superhuman wizards from the underworld. We could finally visualize their faces (albeit not their motives). Shooting from the trunk of their car: it was chilling how subhuman they really were.

Three weeks of pulling down the shades, not riding my bike, and letting the grass grow longer than my good suburban senses should allow. Three weeks of feeling safer in downtown Washington than in my own neighborhood, concern for my children, and wondering how to answer their questions. I now know what it’s like to protect your children when you, yourself feel vulnerable. It takes a certain amount of strength.

These things have a half life. September 11th. Anthrax. The Snipers. In each situation we have been forced to alter our perceptions of our comfortable lives: our American-way-of-life lives.

No sooner had the snipers been caught than the FBI issued a terrorist alert: “Captured al-Qaida photographs of U.S. railroad engines, cars and crossings raised concern about the threat,” the FBI said. And I met Irina Hans’ husband, parents and 7 year old brother Friday. They had come to Washington to gather her things, meet with police, and see where and with whom she worked. Things are different—again.

I was initially relieved but not joyous. I was simply sober. It took two days for it to start to sink below the surface. I took note of my six year old’s exuberance when I came home from work on Friday: “They caught the bad guy!” she shouted as I opened the door. I received a long and deep hug around my knees. “I’m sorry someone else got the reward” I told her. “We can’t buy your pony now.” Early last week she was hopeful that mom would find the shooter, reap the reward, and buy her a horse—a contemporary turn on every young girl’s wish. “I don’t care!” she shouted.

We went to a Halloween party yesterday afternoon, culminating in a parade of costumed “munchkins” walking down the block to the local park. It was the first time I could share my relief with others. We were not the only family to keep our blinds drawn during the day and to turn on extra lights outside at night. Fellow parents laughed about how many errands they had to do: Halloween costumes to be bought, gas to be pumped, and leaves to be raked.

Standing in the middle of the playground, my full attention was on my girls and not the surrounding grove of trees. I suddenly noticed I was breathing deeply and naturally, not the staccato breaths of a few days ago. Even the weather cooperated. The cold and dreary days of the early week gave way to a sunny, 70 degree afternoon. I wore nothing more than a t-shirt, my cloaking device now back in storage.

I’m thankful this is over and I can walk in straight lines with my head in its normal upright position again. My chiropractor will be pleased.

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