October 31, 2002

Washington Students React to Area Sniper

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WASHINGTON, D.C. –One week since the deadly sniper shootings came to an end, Cornell University students in the Cornell in Washington (CIW) program are still recovering from its effects.

The two male suspects, John Allen Muhammad, 41 and John Lee Malvo, 17, were taken into police custody last Thursday.

13 people were shot at random, ten fatally, as fear and anxiety imprisoned residents of the District of Columbia and its suburbs. Cornell students participating in the Cornell-in-Washington Program were caught up in the turmoil as well.

“The sniper shootings affected me more than it affected many of my peers,” Ellen Katch ’04 said.

Almost three weeks since the first shot was fired in Montgomery County, Md., police had few leads. One of them was the description of a vehicle used by the snipers to get away, a white van that was spotted by witnesses at several crime scenes. The car turned out to be a 1990 blue Chevrolet Classic Caprice.

However, since there are tens of thousands of white vans registered in the area, the tension escalated.

“White vans, you see them all the time and you might not even notice but as soon as it becomes a defining characteristic, everyone gets paranoid,” said Claudio Gualtieri ’03.

Gualtieri recalled an encounter with a stranger.

As he walked home from work one day, he spotted a man who walked behind him for several blocks. Gualtieri kept turning his head and looking at the man. In the end, both stared at each other in distrust.

“This event serves as a reminder that terror cannot simply be measured by the number of killings. In this case, 13 were killed but thousands of people from Virginia to Maryland were terrorized, me being one of them,” Gualtieri added.

Although most students tried not to give in to fear, some were reluctant to go on with daily tasks such as shopping or walking to work.

“II knew that, logically, the sniper would not select me as his next victim. Regardless, I could not shake off my anxiety,” Katch said.

Most students, however, did not let the terror interrupt their lives.

“I still went to work, school and to the bars,” said Dan Gennaoui ’04. He did not express fear but rather became more cautious of his surroundings.

“I just think that people are too high-strung. What are the chances of getting sniped? About one in 10 million or so,” said Nicole Tedesco ’04.

Even those who stayed calm felt the general sentiment of nervousness, including Tedesco. “Still, sometimes I caught myself worrying about my boyfriend and friends, even though I tried not to.”

The sniper shootings gave cause for much concern at the Cornell Center, located in the midst of D.C. but students generally felt safe in the city.

“We are always concerned with students about whether they are worried or upset, that’s always going to be something we are very concerned with,” said Jack Moran, tutor and resident advisor for the program.

Linda Johnson, program director of CIW, sent an email offering to organize discussion groups on the topic but that never materialized, in part because of a lack of interest from the students. This was the only step the program took in order to relieve student’s fears.

“Obviously, the idea of it scares me but I didn’t feel directly threatened. It was not very likely that the sniper would come into D.C. for logical reasons, such as traffic,” Jessica Forns ’04 said.

She was more concerned for the way other people were affected outside of the District of Columbia.

“The fact that they had to worry about daily routines such as getting gas or walking to the car was scary. I did see a man walking with his son, basically shielding him and looking around for trucks. That was most upsetting to me,” Forns said.

The effects the shootings had on the D.C. community went beyond resident’s fear of pumping gas or shopping. The threat made on children in the note the snipers wrote to police stated, “Your children are not safe anywhere, at any time,” sent a chilling message throughout the area.

“The people affected most were the children, confined to gym activities inside, when they are the most innocent of us all,” Dan Gennaoui ’04 said.

Archived article by Veronika Belenkaya