Special Reports

News copters took away that feeling of detachment

OK. It doesn't seem so distant anymore.

Ten days ago, I wrote that it was hard to feel the fear experienced by people in the Washington, D.C., area. Despite the incessant assault from the television - especially cable news outlets marketing terror - I didn't feel threatened. I didn't feel afraid.

I wrote that those of us in the West were at risk of slipping into a numb sense of security that was unavailable to those on the Eastern Seaboard. We were in danger of losing an emotional connection to those on the firing line.

That was before the story hit town like a 20-ton satellite truck. Had the sniper lived among us?

It's hard to continue to feel detached when you can see TV news helicopters hovering blocks away. Hard to think that way when friends across the country call to check in because they see "Tacoma, Wash." rather than somewhere in Maryland beneath the glaring graphic "Sniper on the Loose." Hard to think that way when your kids wonder how far 3310 S. Proctor St. is from your house.

Suddenly, those were local TV anchors stretching the same slender threads of information over hours of live broadcasts. And suddenly that mayor and police chief appearing on live TV to reassure us were our mayor and our police chief!

No, it doesn't seem so distant anymore.

After I wrote about the extra effort we must take to feel empathy with the victims, I received two interesting responses.

Melissa said she felt angry at my suggestion that people far away from the East Coast don't feel connected to events there, that terror hasn't changed our lives. Speak for yourself, she said.

"I would like you to know that living in the flight pattern of commercial planes does wake me up and make me flinch," she wrote. "When I filled my car with gas this week, I was watching the building rooftops, maybe not scared, or even terrified, as those people close to the incidents must feel, but still watchful, worried.

"Yes, I would feel much differently about the events on the East Coast had they happened within this state, but to imply that it doesn't affect me daily?"

Wendy lives in Springfield, Va., but had lived in Tacoma for eight years.

"It's true what you said about these things happening so far away," she wrote. "When you live in the middle of it you think about it more. When I visited Seattle recently, I didn't think about it at all."

Wendy wrote that she tried not to let the threat change her life. But she admitted that it was in the back of her mind.

"You look around more and try to be more aware of your surroundings," she wrote. "I've noticed that most people sit in their cars when they fill them up at the gas stations. ... I still stand outside. Dumb maybe, but I like to think of it as my personal form of protest."

Fortunately, we didn't have time for cold fear to creep in or to fashion our own small protests. We went to bed Wednesday vaguely uneasy but woke up Thursday to news that arrests had been made of suspects still thousands of miles away.

With air to fill Wednesday evening, a local TV anchor proclaimed that neighbors might not have noticed gunfire from John Allen Muhammad's back yard because the sound of gunfire was so common in the city. A radio talk-show host pushed the issue again Thursday.

Tacoma's new self-confidence is so fragile that some worried this could reverse years of effort to create a different image. It was striking how in one day Tacoma had been the subject of a flattering column in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that quoted Tacoma police spokesman Jim Mattheis saying, "It's like a whole new city," and then watched Mattheis issue no comments outside a house where a notorious killer may have lived.

Still, we can take comfort that our role in the story left us with no real casualties, save perhaps for a little civic pride.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@mail.tribnet.com