catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 1, Num 4 :: 2002.10.25 — 2002.11.07


Serial snipers and taco targets

My husband and I were stuck for an hour and a half in a car dealership the other day, waiting to find out how much money our check engine light was going to cost us. We were in that uncomfortable waiting room situation in which the television is on some undesirable station and neither of us is willing to consult the other "hopefuls" in the room to change it.

The TV was on a news program that was covering a shooting death in Virginia. Amid the interviews with surveillance video experts, serial killer experts, homicide detectives, and a gaudy red and black serial sniper graphic was the quick and soft message that no one had yet confirmed this death as the work of the sniper. Everything about the program attributed this death to the sniper and the network was spending huge money for special interviews when hard evidence was yet to be found.

While their hypothesis was believable and probably true, I found it disturbing that this program insisted on perpetuating paranoia and fear by having such intense, emergency coverage of the shooting before all of the facts were in. Aside from this, a vast majority of the station's viewing area was not under any immediate threat from the sniper.

Even more disturbing was the trail of headlines along the bottom of the screen that announced at the same time that Taco Bell would give a free taco to every American if one of the World Series players hit a homerun target in San Francisco. Only a few hours later came the report that a note left by the sniper announced that, "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time." In the meantime, millions of Americans settled down to watch game three between the Angels and the Giants.

I had been thinking about writing on the topic of fear for a few days and while this waiting room incident renewed the subject in my mind, it did nothing to give me any clarity. With so much anxiety in every day life, why do the media need to encourage fear? And how are we supposed to respond to free tacos when a serial killer expert is telling us that this is not the end of the spree?

In last Saturday's Chicago Tribune, there was a political cartoon based on these questions. The heading showed the Fear Factor logo, followed by "The Real Life Version." Underneath, it showed a man opening his 401(K) statement, a woman sitting in front of a burger oozing with E. coli and salmonella, and another man cowering behind his car as he attempted to pump gas in the Washington, D.C. area. As though it were a fourth panel to the statement, the letter to the editor next to cartoon lamented the injustices of health coverage in the U.S. Vince Kellen writes,


An attack on our wallets is well under way. In the last four months, my own family members have been struck. One relative saw her COBRA insurance costs rise in excess of 100 percent to more than $1,000 per month for her family. Another, retired and on maintenance medications that eat up most of his Social Security check, is forced each month to choose between food or medicine because he can't buy both.


And I am left wondering, as I drive around the streets of suburban Chicago why we need the media to make us paranoid, why we need the horror movies that are opening up this month to make our eyes wide with terror, why we need the haunted houses to make us scream. Is there not enough reason to be afraid in our own lives?

And then another letter to the editor in the Tribune makes a light go on. This one is from Carol Moyer in Oregon, Illinois:


Besides feeling totally helpless, I am physically and emotionally exhausted by the turmoil and tragedy unfolding every day in our world. But I have the luxury of sitting in my seat at the Lyric Opera, where any tragedy played out on the stage will be resolved in about two hours.


While Vince Kellen's ailing relatives might not be able to afford a season at the opera, they could probably afford to rent a horror movie from the local video store. And in spite of their anxiety related to health insurance, they just might. Why? Because in the end, the bad guy is decapitated or disappears in a poof of smoke. We emerge from the haunted house in one piece and go back to the light and the company of friends. We turn off the news to watch the Taco Bell target float in the bay. All of these activities are an exercise in superficially controlling our fears, but something about this does not seem right to me.

Back at the car dealership, our salvation from the manufactured fear of the news was the very real confirmation of our previous fears, just looking at the car would cost us $95, fixing it another $360. We left with a broken car and a sense of helplessness. Any connection to the fact that we turned on the game last night?

I don't really have any answers to the questions raised here, but I know the letter from Carol Moyer made sense to me. And I know the sniper has a profound sense of how best to elevate our fear. And I have a sense that, though fear is not measurable, there is more of it in our country since September 11, 2001. What is to be our message of hope in these times? Is it ever God's will that we be afraid? What can we say to prevent the need to escape circumstantial fear by participating in finite, intentionally manufactured fear?

I?m afraid I don?t know.

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