Monday, November 18, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

How did Bellingham dodge the bullets?

Special to The Times

BELLINGHAM — Sweating contemplatively in the steam room that I seem to have shared with John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo at the Bellingham YMCA, I ponder the question of the hour: How did we, this community some call "the city of subdued excitement," escape the bullet, so to speak, of the notorious M&M sniper suspects?

Nearly every other place they settled, even briefly, appeared to have felt the deadly sting of their anger. Tacoma, Atlanta, Montgomery, Ala., maybe Tucson, and, of course, Washington, D.C.

Somehow, Bellingham escaped, or so it seems.

National reporters, descending in the usual pack after our town was fingered, came away with a bewildering assortment of descriptions. Most seemed to be under the influence of New Yorker writer Jane Kramer, who found the subject for her book, "The Lone Patriot," in the woods of Whatcom County.

Weird, some called us. Others were less kind.

Bellingham is different, as I have discovered in my 13 years as a Bellinghamster (another of those endearing self-deprecations we are fond of). But it is not weird, nor is the pathetic militia man in Kramer's book representative of even the Whatcom outback, which is no crazier than any of the numerous Cascade foothill communities that dot the slopes of Washington and Oregon.

Nor is Bellingham a western Lake Wobegon. We do have Lutherans, but there is no dominant religion here, and that may be one reason the city is a hotbed of moderation. My favorite is the Greek Orthodox parish that puts on annual food festivals; one will find a pretty good cross-section at those fetes.

No dominant religion, no dominant ethnicity and, really, no dominant political party. The city is Democratic, but the legislative delegation is evenly split between the parties and loyalty runs more along family and neighborhood lines than with national parties.

The city's most-beloved politician when I arrived here was a crew-cut salesman of used cars, who sometimes seemed to lose his place in the agenda book at the City Council but invariably said what was on his mind and knew every person in town. Hopelessly out of date, out of style and politically incorrect in a gentlemanly way, his name is on the city's new swimming pool.

Coming from larger cities and more rancorous politics, I was amazed and then charmed to see City Council members and the mayor address each other and the audience by first names. And at the beginning of each council meeting, anyone from the audience can and many do stand up and orate on any topic on their mind, including a robust bashing of the folks on the rostrum.

All of this leads to what has struck me most about the city, as compared to other places I have lived, on both coasts: Bellingham is a tolerant place.

Permanent residents are tolerant of "the kids" who go to school on the bluffs; Western Washington University's 12,000 students in a city of 65,000 might be expected to either dominate or irritate. Neither is the case, excepting perhaps the brave souls whose homes abut student housing; but even in these situations, there is remarkably little friction. In general, town-and-gown relationships here are a model of forbearance.

Western students are seldom strident and invariably polite. They remind me at times of my peers in the '50s; careers play a huge role in their thinking, politics almost none. Of course, in my era we figured our leaders would deal with things for us. Today, they figure leaders are clueless so it doesn't make any difference.

Confrontations between these students and the "real world" are predictably tame. It should surprise no one that Muhammad and Malvo would find shelter among accepting (and perhaps hopelessly naïve) Western students. Perhaps it's the clean air off Bellingham Bay, or the lack of rush-hour traffic (or a rush hour, for that matter), or the absence of constant big-city tensions. But in a tolerant community, an angry young man (even possibly a pathologically angry young man) perhaps found brief respite, and left without spilling venom on innocent citizens.

At the markedly middle-class YMCA exercise room, I continue to work on my aging muscles, wondering if the suspected killers had really shared a bench in the steam room a few months ago. The sauna is for gossip, conversation, sports talk; the steam room lends itself to contemplation.

While wracking my brain for a clever mid-term examination question, was I sweating next to a muscular young man laying out a plan to slide a silencer onto a powerful rifle and shoot his way into a hostile world? If so, why not here?

Floyd J. McKay is a journalism professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham and has lived and worked in Portland, Washington, D.C., Boston and Honolulu.


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