GWEN IFILL: The Washington area has been under psychological siege for more than a week now, as these killings continue. But what is there for individuals or for law enforcement to do? The answers are practical and emotional.
Here to discuss them are Dudley Warner, senior administrator of the Montgomery County Crisis Center, 24-7 mental health service, in Maryland. Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, associate dean and professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. She specializes in looking at violence as a public health problem, and Dr. N. G. Berrill, a forensic psychologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He's also the director of New York Forensic, a behavioral science consulting firm.
Mr. Warner, you work in a job, you work in a place where there is a lot of anxiety right now. What are people coming to you with, and what are they telling you?
DUDLEY WARNER: We're having people come to us and call us, because we have a crisis line, and what they're telling us is they're basically wanting to find out whether or not their thoughts and feelings are normal. Many of them just are requesting reassurance that these are normal kinds of things for them to feel. And they also very much want to know what they can tell their children.
GWEN IFILL: What kinds of actions are people taking to cope with their feelings?
DUDLEY WARNER: Well, I think it's a variety of different things. People are trying very much to keep their lives as normal as possible, but particularly after this last sniper shooting, I think that becomes increasingly difficult. People find themselves being unable to stand still when they're pumping gas, finding ways to move around and protect themselves when they never would have done that before, really weighing whether they're going to go to work, whether they're going to go out for activities, what they should tell their children about their activities.
GWEN IFILL: Is this considered normal or abnormal?
DUDLEY WARNER: Well, I think given the circumstances it's very normal. If somebody can accommodate to this kind of level of stress and only do those kinds of things, I think it's well within the range of normal.
GWEN IFILL: Dr. Prothrow-Stith, does this sound familiar to you?
DR. DEBORAH PROTHROW-STITH: Well, it does. I think fear is a normal response to this kind of situation. And while the risk of dying in a car crash may be greater, this episode has all the things that bring it right to the top of the fear ladder. It's an external force, you have no control over it, it's random, it's intentional. These are the things that increase the fear.
GWEN IFILL: So does it not help to say to someone, why should you be fearful when in fact if you cross the street tomorrow, you are more likely to be hit by a car? That doesn't work?
DR. DEBORAH PROTHROW-STITH: That doesn't work. We know that the probability of something occurring is only one of the factors that people consider. You'll find often someone who smokes being more worried about air pollution than the cigarette smoking.
The issues are more than the probability; they include how much control you have over that risk, whether someone is doing it to you, or you're doing it to yourself. And in this case, you've got the external control; you have the intentional hurting, which is probably one of the things that really raises it to the top of the fear factor.
GWEN IFILL: And the random nature of this is important, too.
DR. DEBORAH PROTHROW-STITH: Exactly. There isn't a way that you can seemingly protect yourself from what is occurring. Even when we're working with young people and violence, there are things like being out at 3:00 in the morning, or dropping out of school or selling drugs or other things that clearly increase your risk. This is, you know, people going about their daily lives, and it's hard to know how to protect yourself.
GWEN IFILL: And pumping gas and going to the home improvement store don't qualify as risky endeavors most of the time?
DR. DEBORAH PROTHROW-STITH: Not most of the time. And now they do.
GWEN IFILL: Doctor Berrill, how does law enforcement begin to cope with talking to people, with taking care of this when it's so random, with reassuring the public?
N.G. BERRILL: It's a difficult task. On one level I suppose they want to come across as being on top of the situation, at least as best as possible. People are well aware that the community is quite frightened and that the randomness of this violence is unnerving. So I suppose we're seeing these daily conferences on the news where you see law enforcement and executives of a given county try to summarize or to give a sense of where the case is at, and yet simultaneously I suppose not trying to give too much information or over-inclusive so that people start to also become I guess, even more nervous, more upset, more vigilant, looking at stimulus or attending to things that they need not attend to. So it's a difficult task, given how little is truly known about the fellow that's doing this.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk a little bit about the fellow who's doing this or whoever is doing this and what we know about them. Have we seen anything like this before, does this compare to David Berkowitz the Son of Sam or to Andrew Hunanan, or to other people like that?
N.G. BERRILL: Yeah. I think there are bits and pieces. We've seen precedents in many different communities where suppose somebody is on the run, going from state to state, like [Andrew] Cunanan but he was targeting specific types of specific people whom he had an interest in. I think in New York City, [David] Berkowitz also was working on an agenda, which was reflective in part of his mental illness, his paranoia; he had a dialogue with the press, but in essence he wasn't attempting to terrorize at large the culture, the society.
In this case, there is -- a sort of new ground has been broken, if you will, and this person or fellow has randomly chosen a bunch of people in a fairly large area and has managed to psychologically tie up three or four different large communities, powerful communities, because people really don't know what his agenda is, whom he is interested in, and in a sense, you know, until more information is known anyone is a potential victim in this case.
GWEN IFILL: Is the creating of the fear, Dr. Berrill the point here perhaps, rather than creating pain; if he were to shot five or six people at a time, he'd been trying to kill people, a lot of people. But if he's just killing one at a time maybe it's just to create the fear? The fear is the end in itself.
N.G. BERRILL: Sure, that's the sense you get in watching this case unravel -- that this is not a blood lust for a particular type of person. This is not a fellow who is preoccupied with prostitutes or kids -- or anything like that. I think this case really is reflective of this man flexing his muscle and saying, look, you know, I have some skills, perhaps here to fore unacknowledged. You thought I was inept, you know, you thought I was nothing and look what I've been able to do with this skill I have. And in a sense he's been able to elevate himself to a very, very powerful position.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Warner let's talk about the people who are the victims of this fear, a relatively prosperous jurisdiction, Montgomery County, people whose biggest problems normally don't involve random chances of murder and violence. What do you say to people other than it's okay to be scared? How do you give them coping mechanisms at a time like this?
DUDLEY WARNER: Well, most people have coping mechanisms, and we don't have any pat answer that we tell any one person. We basically take everybody as an individual, we listen to what is the most disturbing part about this for them, and then try to give them -- sometimes educate them in terms of signs and symptoms of stress, sometimes it's a matter of helping them tap into things that are already existing in terms of coping mechanisms or people in their social network who can help them. And it's helping them get back control to the extent they can.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk a little bit about something Dr. Berrill just touched on, which is the media's role in this. To what degree do people you see come to your service are they driven to their levels of anxiety by seeing constant coverage, and how much how much of it is too much to know, and how much of it is too much to tell?
DUDLEY WARNER: Well, that's something that I think a lot of people are interested in at this point, because the media has covered this extensively, not only locally but nationally. And I think it's like many of the other situations we've seen like 9/11 where people initially turned to the media as a way to get some control over the situation by having as much information as they can.
GWEN IFILL: Dr. Prothrow-Stith, I want to you answer that question too. I was traveling out of Washington this weekend and discovered everywhere I went people wanted to know about the sniper. Why are people outside of the directly affected region so consumed by this and when is too much too much?
DR. DEBORAH PROTHROW-STITH: I think people are consumed by it in part because of the media coverage and the fear factor as we discussed. And I think there are some ways that the media can be helpful, both in the coverage and in giving people something to do. I think the media are hurtful when it only alarms but doesn't then tell you what kinds of things you can do.
I also think the media can be helpful if there's a relative context to even violence for that matter, a lot of the episodes of violence that do in fact make the news and the national news are the unusual episodes when, in America, friends, associates, acquaintances, family, those situations of violence are even more common.
So I think the context can be very helpful. But the other part in this particular situation, where I think the media can be helpful is in fact encouraging people to get help for the fear that they have, either by talking to family members or talking to someone professionally, to help make decisions about whether or not to cancel events, how in fact you should behave going out, and preparing people when this saga is over, for post-traumatic stress symptoms.
GWEN IFILL: Excuse me, you talk about post-traumatic stress. Is this different, this kind of stress and the kind of stress maybe you saw after 9/11?
DR. DEBORAH PROTHROW-STITH: I think what's happening now is different, because there's an ongoing fear. And it could happen again. I think what we're dealing with around September 11, while it could happen again, is more like the post-traumatic stress disorder, and seems a lot less likely than this particular sniper shooting someone else. So we can prepare for the post-traumatic stress phase of this, but also deal with the fear as it stands now.
GWEN IFILL: And Dr. Berrill, we just heard Tom Ridge, the Director of Homeland Security, say that in his opinion this meets the definition of terrorism. Does that sound right to you?
N.G. BERRILL: In a sense it is terrorism. This fellow likely doesn't have a political agenda, or we probably would have heard about it at this point. It would have been important for him to get that across, but if one person owing to violent behavior, seemingly random violent behavior, is able to tie several communities up and keep thousands upon thousands of people on the edge of their seats, literally scared out of their wits, it certainly meets the definition of terror, and it is a sort of urban terrorism.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Warner, briefly you just heard Dr. Prothrow-Stith that we need to tell people what they can do. What things do you tell people they can do?
DUDLEY WARNER: Well, we tell people to as much as possible keep to their normal routines, to the extent they can, and to be mindful of the fact that their children probably more than they even are more reminded of this on a minute to minute basis, all the children in this area are in code blue, which means their classrooms are locked down. So minute to minute they are aware of the fact that they cannot go on field trips, cannot go outside.
GWEN IFILL: Okay, well, thank you very much for joining us, thank you all.