Another Madman In Washington
All politics is local, the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill so often remarked.
This past week, "local" for me has meant the corner of Georgia Avenue and Kalmia Road in the northwest portion of Washington, DC. At that intersection on the night of Oct. 3, Pascal Charlot, a 72-year-old carpenter who long ago immigrated from Haiti, was shot dead by a serial sniper who, as of this writing, has murdered at least eight people and injured two in the Washington area.
Every weekday morning, I pass this corner, as I drive my 3-year-old daughter to school. In my early morning daze, I stare at the liquor store, the Jamaican restaurant, the Nile Market. Charlot was in front of the mini-mall -- laundromat, shoe store, nails salon, Chinese take-out -- when he was gunned down. He was across the street from the Northminster Presbyterian Church, where, police suspect, the killer had positioned himself behind the sign in front of the church.
It's a busy intersection. We never make the light, and we sit there. My daughter almost always asks why we're not moving. She knows red means stop and green means go, but each day I have to explain that we're obeying a traffic signal and that traffic lights prevent cars from crashing. "Why do cars crash?" she usually asks.
In recent days, as we run through this routine, I gaze out at a spot several yards from our car where three wet bundles of flowers sit in a pile. On a telephone pole hangs a sign that proclaims, "Thou Shall Not Kill." The light turns, and we drive the four blocks to her school and pass the police car stationed out front.
I then head to my office, turn on the television, and see the president going on about how a thuggish dictator 6,000 miles away is a clear and present threat to individual Americans -- even as the CIA has concluded Saddam is unlikely to strike at the United States unless he is attacked by Washington. Pardon me, then, if I don't worry about the supposed immediate danger from Baghdad, when neighbors are being massacred spitting distance from my child's school.
What's being done about that threat? The police are toiling away, and local government officials and reps of federal agencies called in to assist assure the public they are doing all that is possible. But in a way, that is not true.
There could be a national ballistic identification system that would allow law enforcement officials to try to trace guns used in shootings. "Such a system," The New York Times reports, "would have been of great use in the Washington case ... because so far bullet fragments are virtually the only evidence." Thanks to the National Rifle Association and the gun industry, Congress has banned a national program of this sort.
Using optical-scan digital technology, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms can determine if bullet remains and shell casings came from the same gun. That is how police tell that one weapon was used in different shootings. But the gumshoes cannot track where the gun came from. If gun manufacturers were compelled to maintain an electronic record of the markings made on bullets and shell casings when a newly manufactured gun is test fired, a database could be created that law enforcement officials could use to trace a specific gun -- first to the manufacturer and then to the original buyer. This system might be costly, could be difficult to administer, and, obviously, would only cover a portion of the handguns in circulation. Still, it would offer police departments one more tool for tough-to-crack cases.
The NRA, though, blasts ballistic fingerprinting as "yet another costly diversion from the real problem -- the lack of prosecutions of armed, violent offenders." It's difficult to see how more prosecutions of criminals would deter the madman sniper in my neighborhood or do much to assist the police in nabbing him.
The NRA fears a database linking bullet and shell casing markings to the serial numbers of new firearms would amount to a national gun registry. Yet what's wrong with a national gun registry? The gun-lobby paranoids are scared that if the Federal Government had a list of the guns out there, the feds could one day use that information to seize those weapons.
As former Senator James McClure, an Idaho Republican and gun-rights fan, once declared, "Gun registration is the first step toward ultimate and total confiscation." And, according to some gun aficionados, American citizens need to retain their guns in case the feds become so tyrannical that the populace has to fight back. ("They may have nukes, but we got our forty-fives.")
Does that sound a little extreme to you? The gun-nuts can be imaginative. As Mark Brown, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times reported a few days ago, the Illinois chapter of the NRA put out a newsletter suggesting the DC-area sniper killings are part of an anti-gun conspiracy. In case you cannot believe that, here's what the newsletter said:
"Far be if from us to advance conspiracy theories, but the timing of this sniper activity is unsettling. Maryland has one of the hottest governor's races in the country, certainly hotter than that in Illinois. The central theme of the Maryland race is gun control. Things heat up. There is this off the wall series of sniper killings. Murder made to order for the antigunners. Hmmm, weren't there some other high-profile mass gun killings at strangely convenient times."
Doesn't that make sense? Gun-controllers are murdering innocent people to win support for their preferred candidate. Contacted by an outraged Brown, the president of the Illinois State Rifle Association, Richard Pearson, defended this wackiness, adding, "We know how unscrupulous the other side can be."
Pearson may be a few cartridges short upstairs, but he and his compatriots in the NRA have a hold on the president and many members of Congress. They have prevented development of a national ballistic fingerprinting system, which could help police protect Americans from gun violence. And they can be expected to oppose -- directly or indirectly -- an extension of the assault weapons ban when it expires in two years. The sniper in our midst, according to the police, may be using an assault rifle.
So this threat, policy-wise, goes unaddressed by our elected officials. Also, now that it seems probable that Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, was heading toward the Capitol before passengers intervened and the plane crashed, I have another real threat to fret (or obsess) over: My office is a half block from that bull's-eye, and al-Qaeda is apparently increasing its activity. Osama bin Laden's network might be connected to the recent attack in Kuwait that killed a U.S. Marine and was possibly involved in the explosion on a supertanker off the coast of Yemen. Al-Qaeda also has been tied to attacks in Tunisia and Pakistan, and one of its low-life members did try to blow up an airliner with an exploding sneaker.
In a recent audiotape, Ayman Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's number-two, vowed continued strikes against America and its allies. And, as 9/11 demonstrated, this gang likes to hit targets it previously missed. Which is not good news for us Capitol Hill dwellers. (Should I receive hazard pay for filing from Washington?) Bin Laden's followers have not, as far as the public knows, attempted any major assaults since a year ago. But the threat remains, and seems on the rise. Yet Bush stays fixated on the Bastard of Baghdad, with his administration trying mightily to connect Saddam's murderous regime to al-Qaeda but doing so without clear-cut success.
As I shuttle between sniper-land and an al-Qaeda target, I am quite conscious -- perhaps too much so, and a bit parochially -- of immediate and pressing threats. And especially since I take the CIA at its word, these days Saddam does not make it to the top of the to-worry-about list.