Crime is no stranger to city dwellers like Chicagoan Annette Farola. But something about the sniper shootings in the Washington, D.C., area is making her and some other Americans edgy, whether they live nearby or thousands of miles away.
In the past two weeks, Farola's been limiting trips to the mall and eating out in restaurants less often. She feels nervous standing near a gas station as she waits for a ride home from the nursing home where she works.
"It's much more dangerous now because you don't know who your enemy is," says Farola, 29, puffing on a cigarette as she scans her surroundings. "It can happen day, night -- anywhere."
Others are feeling the same way, no matter how far they live from the gas stations, parking lots and school yards where a sniper has killed nine people and wounded two others since Oct. 2. Although many concede that the chances of being shot by a sniper are minimal, they are thinking about it often -- and even changing plans and habits.
Worried about copycats, Sherri Pfefer, a 39-year-old resident of Weston, Fla., says she now looks over her shoulder when she fills up her gas tank.
John Galbraith, a father of three from Rochester, N.Y., canceled a trip last weekend to visit his brother in Washington.
And last week, Debra O'Leary's 11-year-old son told her he was afraid of getting "sniped" in their kitchen while staying alone in their home in Bloomington, Ind.
"After Y2K, I try not to worry about anything that I have no control over," says O'Leary, who's been trying to reassure her "worrywart" son.
But Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Boston's Northeastern University, says that's difficult to do because adults -- already rattled by the Sept. 11 terror attacks -- are worried, too.
He calls the randomness of the sniper's victims "everyone's worst nightmare."
"He's not targeting a senator. He's not targeting Hollywood stars or CEOs. He's targeting the average Joe," says Levin, who's written books about serial killing. "So it's easy to identify with these victims, even if you live in New York or LA or Chicago."
As Julie Robinson-Tingue, a 33-year-old mother of two from Long Island, puts it: "All of the unfortunate victims were just like me."
Glen Ruff, a 43-year-old school crossing guard in Evanston, Ill., agrees that the sniper shootings stand out from others -- "because they're against people who are just living their lives."
But he's not about to change his routine, which includes standing outside a school several hours a day. "As hard as it is to say," he says, "you can't live in fear."
Still others are put off by the attention the sniper shootings are getting.
"I resent it when I turn on the TV," says Mike Duggan, the prosecutor in Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit. "Kids in Detroit live in fear of being shot every day. Yet when white America fears being shot, the country comes to a halt."
The sniper's victims, most of them suburbanites, have been white, Hispanic, black and Asian.
Charles Emmons, a professor of sociology at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, also accuses the media of stirring public fear.
"It could be argued that people need this news in order to take safety precautions," he says. "However, they do not need the level of saturation of coverage or the extent of emotional testimonials from families and friends of victims."
Levin, too, urges people to keep the shootings in perspective.
"Serial sniping or serial killing is not epidemic. It just feels that way," he says, noting that there were 15,000 murders in this country last year -- and that most of victims knew their killers.
Staying calm is, of course, toughest for people who live and work near the shooting sites.
"You'd be amazed at just how many white vans with ladders there are around here," says Paul Fucito, who works in Washington and lives in a Virginia suburb, referring to witness descriptions of the sniper's vehicle.
Deborah Schwartz, who lives in Bethesda, Md., says her 16-year-old daughter suggested she "bob and weave" as they ran from a parking lot to a store earlier this week.
Meanwhile, officials at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., are advising their Washington alumni club to cancel an upcoming winery tour in northern Virginia. And now some Washington-area parents want to nix trick-or-treating on Halloween.
"In other words," says Kevin Callahan, a 28-year-old from Alexandria, Va., "cancellations alone make it impossible for us to go about everyday life."