Two hundred miles south of the stadium at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, thirty year old Brad Fallon sat alone in the tool-strewn cabin of his mastless 44-foot sailboat, staring at a small black and white television. A breaking news bulletin on the radio had caused him to put down his work and dig out the rarely watched portable 12 volt television. He sat transfixed, numb, the same way that he had up in Alaska when he had first seen the replays of the jetliners flying into the World Trade Center on another September day. No words spoken on the radio could duplicate the impact of seeing the actual events, even on a nine inch black and white screen.
His garage-sale Panasonic only received four broadcast channels, but it didn't matter, because the network anchors had been found and brought to the studios, preempting all other programs. All of them wore similar black suits and maintained a funereal demeanor as they read the latest updates, interspersed with frequently repeated replays of the worst imagery of the disaster. The usual network talking heads were inset in the corners of aerial views of the stadium in suburban Maryland, near the Washington Beltway, where a full blown mass casualty triage and evacuation was underway. Familiar sports announcers provided grim eyewitness accounts from inside of the stadium.
The full proportions of the disaster were still emerging, but it appeared that a sniper shooting from outside had fired dozens or perhaps hundreds of bullets into the packed stadium, killing and wounding many directly, and precipitating a panic stampede. Many of the exit ramps and tunnels were still choked with tangled victims presumably both dead and alive. The seating areas beneath the upper decks which had become falling body impact zones were too gruesome to show on television. The whispered casualty estimates ran from hundreds to thousands depending on which expert was asked.
Military and civilian helicopters were landing directly on the football field. Charter buses which had come to the stadium full of cheerful fans were being pressed into service to augment the hundreds of arriving ambulances in removing the injured. Frenzied police struggled to open passable routes through the gridlock around the stadium. Commercial tow trucks were pressed into service clearing lanes, and abandoned cars were being pushed and pulled out of the way without regard to damage.
The stadium's PA system continuously advised fans to find a seat and wait while rescuers removed the trapped victims. Some listened, but others crawled through exit tunnels over the heaps of dead and injured, searching for a way out, increasing the crushing weight on those struggling for their last breaths while buried alive far below.
Across America and around the world hundreds of millions of television viewers were once again absorbing the impact of mass casualty terrorism, not as the result of crashed jetliners or smallpox or anthrax or a suitcase nuke, but all apparently as the result of one sniper armed with an "assault rifle." And this time, the carnage was ongoing, as the trapped continued to succumb to asphyxiation.
Two more weeks, three at the most, and Brad Fallon was sure that he'd be gone, right over that blue horizon, leaving America to work out its latest agonies without him. He had $75,000 banked after his last six month contract working in the Alaskan ANWR oil fields, a bought and paid for boat, and a mast and engine just waiting to be installed. If domestic events now unfolded the way he suspected they might, he guessed that he had picked an opportune time to leave the States for a few years of cruising the world's tropical oceans and islands.
The networks broke simultaneously for an impromptu press briefing. The governor of Maryland, the mayor of Washington, and many recognizable national politicians stood behind the local chief of police, taking the opportunity to get their deeply concerned faces on national television. The uniformed police chief was handed a wallet by a helmeted SWAT officer wearing black tactical gear, cameras jerked as the press pushed forward. Microphones cut in and out and the grandstanding Chief of Police, making the most of his fifteen minutes of national fame, began a short statement.
"This wallet was just taken from the sniper's body and brought directly to me by the commander of our tactical unit." He slipped on reading glasses, and then he opened the shiny black wallet, oblivious to his contaminating possible evidence. He examined it for a moment, and then he turned it around to the cameras, which zoomed in on the ID cards behind two clear plastic windows. He cleared his throat and said "James R. Shifflett. The ID found on the sniper is in the name of one James R. Shifflett, of Norfolk Virginia." Fallon's TV picture zoomed in on the ID cards; a Virginia driver's license and a military card of some sort. The tiny photos were too blurry to make out anything other than that Shifflett was a white man with light brown colored hair and a stringy mustache. Most of the printed information was too small and grainy to read.
It was a sign of the deep cynicism Fallon felt that he was not surprised that they put the sniper's name and photo on national television right away: he seemed to be a garden variety Caucasian male. When an act of terrorism occurred and the suspect was from the Middle East or had a Muslim name, that fact was usually concealed for days, in order to dampen anti-Muslim anger. The way that the broadcast television networks strived to "protect" their viewers from politically incorrect news was one reason Fallon's TV set usually stayed buried in a locker. He listened to AM news-talk radio to find out what was really going on.
Brad Fallon had hoped that he would get his new 80-horsepower Perkins turbo diesel aboard Guajira today, or at least from the dock over onto her deck, but as the afternoon wore on he resigned himself to waiting until Monday. The news that the sniper was from Norfolk gave him a sense of unease, drawing the day's horrific events uncomfortably close.
The Suffolk Virginia police department needed less than thirty minutes to discover James Shifflett's last domicile, a dilapidated thirty foot camper trailer located at the end of a long dirt driveway. The trailer was tucked back among pine trees and was almost invisible from the paved state road, where the first TV vans were sending up their microwave antennas. The hundred yard long driveway and dusty weed-choked yard was already packed tightly with marked and unmarked police cars, a SWAT truck, and mobile crime scene vans.
The SWAT team and bomb disposal technicians quickly examined the trailer for booby traps; one of the local TV crews with a lucky camera angle captured the sight of SWAT officers carrying out rifles in each of their hands. This damning evidence was laid on top of the hood of a police cruiser as a temporary exhibit, and camera crews were permitted in to film them. By two PM the entire world knew that James "Jimmy" Shifflett was a fanatical gun nut, who had lived in a trailer containing an "arsenal" of five rifles and shotguns and over two thousand rounds of ammunition. His small library contained books on sniping, bomb construction, and white supremacist hate literature.
Even as millions of TV viewers were still watching and rewatching video clips of the day's bloodbath in the stadium, and while the residents of southeastern Virginia were absorbing the fact that a local man had gone berserk and caused it all, the never-stopping gears of the federal government were turning out reactions, responses, and contingency plans. The new and untested president, in office only eight months, called an emergency meeting of the Homeland Security Team in the White House situation room beneath the Oval Office. One of their first decisions was to ask the national television networks for a prime time slot to give a brief presidential address to the country at nine PM eastern time.
All afternoon millions of families sat quietly in front of their televisions as the toll of dead and injured mounted. They watched as the triage of victims continued on the stadium parking lots. They saw an unending stream of departing ambulances, and helicopters flicking in and out. In several areas around the stadium the steadily increasing ranks of the dead were laid side by side covered with blankets and sheets. Over and over Americans watched replays of the fateful moments after the kickoff when something strange began to happen in the western end zone upper deck, which in two minutes became a life and death stampede for 6,000 desperate fans.
That false rush to nonexistent safety ended cruelly as the lowest fans were pushed ever downward by the sheer weight of the fleeing crowds above them, until their crushed bodies collapsed the railings at the bottom. At last they tumbled over the edge in linked clusters, falling nine stories down onto the disbelieving fans below them. This horror show then triggered a general panic throughout the stadium, and even though the sniper had fired only a limited number of bullets into one section, the entire stadium dissolved into a bedlam with hundreds and thousands of trapped fans jamming every exit tunnel. The stronger behind climbed up over the weaker ahead until every way out was plugged with choking and groaning masses of crushed and suffocating humanity.
The video clips of the thousands of fans tumbling from the upper deck to their deaths before the unblinking television cameras became the indelible image of the day, even though far more victims died trampled and asphyxiated and unseen in the exit tunnels.
"Get me the gun! I want to have the gun during the address," President Gilmore told his Assistant Chief of Staff.
"Mr. President, I don't think that's a good idea. I think we can emphasize the enormity of the tragedy without resorting to any ... theatrics which may detract ..."
"I said get me the damn gun! Where is it? Put it on a chopper, do what it takes, I want that damn gun here by nine PM, is that clear enough?"
President Edward Gilmore sat behind his Oval Office desk in a black suit and a charcoal tie, the lights hot on his makeup-caked face. It was funeral director's attire, he thought, his eyes on the teleprompter, and a funeral director is what I am tonight. The clock ticked down to nine PM.
"Good evening my fellow Americans. I come to you tonight with a heavy heart, a broken heart. As of my latest information over 1,000 of our fellow citizens have died since today's catastrophic events. Thousands more lie in almost a hundred hospitals up and down the coast, many near death or on life support, as our wonderful doctors and nurses work into the night to save them. My prayers go out to all of the victims and their families, and to our heroic medical staffs who are working so hard to save lives even as I speak.
"I have received over one hundred telegrams and letters and calls of condolence from leaders around the world on this terrible day, and it is difficult for me to find the words with which to answer them. Difficult because this was not a natural disaster which befell us today, nor was it an accident, nor even an act of war by a hostile power or a foreign terrorist group.
"No, my fellow Americans, this was an act of sheer malice, a calculated act of evil springing from the darkest pit of our own national heart. This was an act made possible only because of a peculiar sickness in our American culture. Today's tragic event resulted from our inexplicable national love affair with firearms and weapons of war, like the assault rifle which was used today to mow down our friends and neighbors."
Jimmy Shifflett's murder weapon had been placed upright against a wall, at a sufficient distance from the president that the camera would not place it with him in the same view. President Gilmore pointed toward the rifle and another camera cut briefly to it. Across America and around the world viewers saw the ugly black and brown rifle, with its long menacing home made silencer, and its curved banana clip magazine. It had a telescopic mounted on the left side and pointed down at the exact angle which would raise the barrel just enough to loft its bullets over the stadium walls from 1,250 yards away. Ugly as it was, the obsolete Russian-surplus military rifle exuded menace. It had been cheaply but effectively customized into a long range crowd killer, it was clearly the product of a cunningly evil mind.
"I am told that this is an SKS assault rifle, manufactured decades ago in the former Soviet Union, and legally sold in any gun store in America for about two hundred dollars. It was built to hold ten bullets at a time inside it, but it has been modified to accept thirty round magazines. It can fire the thirty bullets automatically, as fast as the trigger can be pulled. Three of those magazines, ninety bullets, created today's massacre.
"Apparently Mr. Shifflett was a former Marine, and served his nation with honor in 1991 during the first Iraq war. Since then he has been beset by numerous health problems, including mental health problems, and he had been hospitalized for both physical and psychiatric reasons many times. Yet in spite of that troubled personal history, Mr. Shifflett was able to acquire a virtual armory of assault rifles, including the one responsible for today's carnage.
"Something is very deeply wrong in our country, when a long-time mental patient is able to obtain a private arsenal of assault rifles. Something is very, very deeply wrong, and now it is time to correct that wrong.
"So I have asked the leaders of both parties, many of whom witnessed the horrific stadium massacre today in person, to take up this issue without delay. It is long past time to acknowledge that our gun laws, which utterly failed to keep assault rifles out of the hands of a dangerous psychotic, are not sufficient to provide for the safety of our people. It is long past time that the United States of America addressed its unholy love affair with weapons of war and death. We must join the ranks of all other sane and civilized nations in keeping these awful instruments of death away from criminals and the unbalanced. Let Congress address this cancer eating at our soul without delay, so that there can be no more assault rifle massacres.