Reflecting on Black Men as Snipers

The recent sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C. area made for a lot of TV watching. It wasn't because the story was always riveting or the news was always breaking. In fact, more often than not, the news briefings held by Police Chief Charles A. Moose of Montgomery County, Md., were uninformative. 

And yet, even as the shooters' range expanded to other jurisdictions and even as the timing of attacks was variable, Moose would, every few hours, make his way to the microphone at the Montgomery "command center," surrounded by reporters, camera crews, support staff and law enforcement types, to tell us what we already knew: The killer was still at large. The whole business had become "personal." Someone had seen a white van or a white box truck, somewhere.

As October wore on, and frightened locals were increasingly testy concerning what the cops did or didn't know, how they were handling the case, and what they were saying publicly, or leaking or refusing to leak to the camped-out press, Moose kept on. Now, in hindsight, the reasons for his cryptic tactics seem multiple and complex. You know that he was communicating more or less directly with the killer ("The person you called could not hear everything you said; the audio was unclear and we want to get it right. Call us back so that we can clearly understand") and responding to notes left at crime scenes ("Our word is our bond"). 

Exactly what Moose knew or when he knew it may never become completely known, but during those difficult 23 days, the emotional toll on him was visible daily. As he now describes the strategy, post-suspects-capture, "I'll talk to the devil himself to keep another person alive."

He wasn't the only one doing a lot of talking, of course. Television news shows trotted out legions of "profilers," professional, retired, amateur and increasingly annoying, lining up on TV and in print to tell everyone how to imagine the killer. Their occupations were varied -- legal correspondents, cable news hosts, professors, reporters, columnists, former lawyers, current lawyers, terrorism experts, former employees of the FBI, former cops and, in one sensational instance, even a former serial killer: David Berkowitz, interviewed by the Fox News Channel's ever intrepid, ever misguided Rita Cosby.

For all the (ratings-bumping) brouhaha that greeted Cosby's ostensible coup, the Son of Sam's insights were much like everyone else's -- the killer was shooting from a distance, he was moving about, he was angry. For all the lack of available information, these authorities and specialists dutifully wore their suits, appeared against book-lined backdrops or in maps-and-graphics-equipped studios, to proclaim what everyone knew, or worse, what they had no substantive grounds for asserting: The killer was white, male, of a certain age and station. He was taunting police, he wanted to get caught. He was ingenious, he was insane. He was a terrorist, an expert sniper, an expert first-person video game player, indicated because he used that odious and supremely unimaginative phrase, "I am god."

A few "news" shows included discussions of the "news" coverage. Was the coverage excessive and sensational? Was it fear-mongering? Ratings-mongering? Was it superseding other news? Was all this profiling bogus? (Recall how many times you heard someone set up his -- and it was mostly "his" -- opinion by saying, "Well, I don't have all the facts, but ...")

In most areas around the United States, the story was awful and upsetting -- and not the only news. Still, the cable news stations took it up as if it was, deploying expensive crosshairs graphics, interrupting themselves to "break" news that wasn't new. For Donahue, Jerry Nachman, Connie Chung, Bill O'Reilly, Dan Abrams, Geraldo, John Walsh, Chris Matthews, et. al., it was the story of the minute for almost a month, and that meant that the teams assembled beneath the Montgomery tents came from all over.

However, in and around D.C., where I live, the story was (and remains) local news, intensely. The wall-to-wallness was unavoidable. Morning to night, Sniper TV ruled. Schools closed in Virginia, interviewees explained why they were staying home or going to the mall, traffic stopped for hours following an attack, and the secret military high-tech surveillance plane was flying around, somewhere, sometime, maybe. And no matter where the violence and grief spread, Chief Moose came before the mic, to read his statements and (maybe) take questions. Politely, because, as he instructed one journalist, his parents raised him that way.

And then, shortly after midnight, on Thursday, Oct. 24, the news channels went nuts with "Breaking News" banners, splitting their screens and their experts' opinions across chopper shots of a backyard in Tacoma, Wash., and a liquor store in Montgomery, Ala. 

Suddenly, there was a license plate, then names and descriptions: John Allen Muhammad, a 41-year-old Gulf War Army veteran with a couple of ex-wives and several relatives who were all too ready to talk to Larry and Katie and Greta; John Lee Malvo, variously termed Muhammad's "stepson," his "teenage sidekick," or "a 17-year-old Jamaican immigrant with a sketchy past." He left his fingerprint on a gun-lovers' magazine in Alabama, which led ATF, FBI and local police investigators directly to the pair, as soon as one of them phoned the task force and told them about "Montgomery."

Suddenly, there were arrests at a truck stop in Maryland, a "courageous" truck driver, and ongoing arguments about who gets to prosecute first; as Montgomery (Ala.) Police Chief John Wilson put it, in a much-repeated sound bite, "We're going to make an example of somebody." 

Suddenly, there was a Bushmaster rifle and a blue Caprice with a hole cut in the trunk, a grim "killing machine." There were court reporter sketches, perp walks and home videos of martial arts classes.

Suddenly, there were faces -- black faces.

This last bit came as something of a surprise, especially if you'd been even half-listening to all the experts who were so sure about what to expect and presume of serial killers. But the surprise, disturbing and pause-giving as it might be, hasn't exactly stopped the experts from yapping. 

After all, now there are more stories to put together and tell: unhappy childhoods and military service records to dig up; last visits and ominous conversations to recall (Muhammad's six-months-ago question to an "old Army friend": "Can you imagine the damage you could do if you could shoot with a silencer?"); distressing anecdotes to relate (Malvo's diet of crackers and honey, and his "scared" behavior). And on Saturday, another arrest of another "material witness," Nathaniel Osbourne, 26-year-old co-owner of the Caprice, whose picture appears on TV screens, seemingly cut off from a snapshot that once included someone else.

Presently, all terms and assumptions have changed. Most of the stories emerging have to do with this unexpected turn, this unexpected blackness.

Item: One note from the sniper closed with five stars. Says Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post: "This case hardly lacks for bizarre elements. Who would have thought that the ... suspect's notes would reference a 'duck in the noose' fairy tale or a Jamaican band called the Five Stars?"

Item: Muhammad converted to Islam in 1985. "This is a politically incorrect thing to say," announced "Terrorism Expert" Steve Emerson on The Abrams Report (Oct. 24), "but the bottom line is, [for] the devout Muslim who believes in taking action in jihad, it's a short line for them to go into carrying out violence."

He added, not quite as an afterthought, "Again, we don't know what motivated this particular shooter."

Item: Muhammad may or may not have been sympathetic to the 9/11 hijackers, and reportedly worked "security" at the Million Man March. This last bit has been denied by Louis Farrakhan, who adds that if Muhammad is convicted of murder, he'll be kicked out of the Nation. CNN reports: "Farrakhan noted that Oklahoma City bomber 'Timothy McVeigh confessed that he was a Christian, but nobody blames the church for his misconduct.'"

Item: "I am god" now doesn't designate video game prowess, but, reported Fox News Channel (for a minute), it may refer to a belief held by members of the Five PercentNation (also here). According to the Associated Press (Oct. 27), Robert Walker, "a consultant based in Columbia, S.C., who helps police identify gangs" observes of this coincidence: "I'm not saying he's a Five Percenter. I don't know that. Only that 'I am God' is something a Five Percenter might say. All black men who are followers and members of the Five Percenters refer to themselves as God and will even refer to someone else who is a Five Percenter as a God also."

Item: Geraldo and others are scrambling to make their tabloid points, loudly. The Oct. 27 edition of At Large With Geraldo Rivera led with the reporter's announcement that this "angry loser" (Geraldo is colorful, as always) is linked with human smuggling. In April 2001, it comes out, Muhammad was detained by immigration inspectors at the Miami International Airport, who suspected him of trying to smuggle two undocumented Jamaican women into the country.

Item: On Saturday, Oct. 26, Malvo, handcuffed in his holding cell, made an awkward effort to climb out through the ceiling. There wasn't a chance he might have made it, but responses from Virginia's (painfully named) Attorney General Jerry Kilgore and still more "experts" were immediate and harsh. Keep him in shackles, in waist chains and leg braces. And, most emphatically, make sure he gets tried in Virginia, where he can be tried as an adult and eligible for the death penalty. So that someone, somewhere, can "make an example of somebody."

Looking back on the past month and looking forward to the feeding frenzy that the court cases will inspire, journalists persist. Time magazine has called on Vietnam War veteran, essayist, and novelist Tim O'Brien (Going After Cacciato) to ponder "the difficult task facing soldiers returning to society."

His insights are at once predictable and weighty. In war, he notes, "The capacity that you could do terrible things is awakened." It's difficult to come back to the world, to a civilian life. At the same time, O'Brien indicts the U.S. media and its consumers: "I was disgusted to see this country transfixed by a sniper while a war's being planned in Iraq," he writes. People in "the rest of the world ... could be dying by the thousands and we'll go on with our business with no fear or personal stake. I never fail to be stunned by our appetite for atrocity and violence."

As if to illustrate (or feed) same, this past weekend's TV (Oct. 25-27) has been rife with efforts to describe, reframe and sensationalize the sniper story, not to mention to justify the previous attention paid to all those so-wrong experts. In addition to underlining (and amplifying) the obvious drama of the case, these shows are also explaining their own existence on the scene(s). The sniper mounted "an attack on the fabric of life," says reporter Jean Meserve, on CNN's Manhunt: Cracking the Case (Oct. 27), while she stands on a street in the "D.C. metropolitan area," the same area where so many D.C.-based reporters live.

Manhunt goes on to trace events: The first day's shooting spree, the ensuing tensions and tactics, the sites of attack, the daily reports by Chief Moose (these images enhanced to grainy digital close-ups to enhance horror-effects, say, when he reads from the postscript, "Your children are not safe, anywhere, at any time"), the amassing media coverage. 

At its peak, reports CNN, the ratings for networks covering the story "more than tripled," helped along, no doubt, by the startling cross-hairs logos and galvanizing theme music. "Marketing murder or serving a public need?" asks the reporter. "In fact, it was both." In fact.

As might be expected, given his reputation, his man-in-action opening credits graphics, and his penchant for reporting on all-things-gigantic-that-will-enhance-himself, Rivera's show Oct. 27 obscures fact in favor of high emotion and low tabloidism (his set for the past couple of days includes a mock-up of the "killing machine," a 1990 Caprice his "expert" has outfitted to resemble that of the killers).

First, Rivera beats down any effort by his guest, John Mills, Muhammad's lawyer during a custody case in 1999, to suggest that Muhammad's (alleged) violence may have been long in the making, a function of building frustrations. Geraldo wonders why Mills wants to probe into the past (even though Geraldo has, again, invited him onto the show). Mills attempts to state his case: "It's important to understand what happened, in order to prevent this from happening in the future." 

Rivera rejects that. Mills tries again, noting that the talking-head-guest-psychologists Robert Butterworth and Cyril Wecht are diagnosing a man they've never met (they're commenting on Muhammad's sympathy for the 9/11 terrorists, while the man who knew him then, Mills, observes, "He wanted to see his kids"). Rivera scoffs. "There are 13 bodies here, 10 of 'em dead. Maybe you're the oddball here, maybe you're the one who's wrong."

Not one to stop when he's (even nominally) ahead, Rivera moves on to the next segment: Former prosecutor Wendy Murphy declares, "The death penalty isn't enough. We want them to suffer more ... How else do we vindicate the interests of the entire region?" At Rivera's (seeming) invitation, attorney Geoffrey Feiger attempts to inject sanity into the proceedings, suggesting that this "thirst for blood ... speaks volumes about this country. It makes us as uncivilized as [the killers]." Yet again, Rivera passes judgment: Muhammad and Malvo, driven by their "diabolical chemistry," deserve to die. So much for due process.

None of this is to say that the murders are not heinous or the murderers not horrific. The process of media story-making, however, is hardly transparent. 

When, also on Oct. 27, Greta Van Susteren interviews Chief Moose and his wife, Sandy Herman-Moose, the focus is not on lust for punishment, sensational violence or perpetual horrors. Moose, humble, gracious and looking rested at long last, focuses instead on his "pride" in the cooperation between departments and individuals, the ongoing mourning of survivors' families, and the role of the media in the investigation (and still, he doesn't blame or make noise, only notes, quietly, his view of what happened). Moose is no longer in charge, since prosecutors in Virginia, Maryland and Alabama have jumped on the self-promotional bandwagon. And the case looks increasingly hysterical and sad.

A decent and now much respected man, Moose's prominence in this lengthy "show" -- not to mention his enigmatic messages to the sniper ("You have asked us to say, 'We have caught the sniper, like a duck in a noose'") and brusque behavior with reporters -- now appear to have been motivated by some knowledge that he could not disclose at the time.

Pete Hamill speculates in the New York Daily News (Oct. 25), that this knowledge had to do with the killer's identity; that is, his race. Hamill writes that Moose's "anguish seemed to intensify as communications were opened with the killers. Almost certainly this was because he knew they were black. He is clearly a decent, tough, disciplined black man, an American before he is anything else. But he also must have known what my friend knew yesterday: Black people didn't need this. He almost certainly knew one other large truth: Race had nothing to do with it."

But of course, race has everything to do with it. No one has to say it to make it so. 

Still, several major newspapers (among them, the Washington Post, The New York Times, the Baltimore Sun) have run stories on reactions of "black community" members to the news that the suspects are black. Black call-in radio shows (like Tom Joyner's) were inundated with responses, as was (read the messages here); Tavis Smiley plans to do a show on the subject, and it's a good bet that Ed Gordon will do so as well. (Johnny Cochran, however, has already begged off the case, telling Donahue that he felt "fear" when in D.C. during the period of the attacks, so he's no longer objective.)

This is a discussion that "white community" members will never need to have. They don't feel that a Timothy McVeigh, an Eric Harris, or a Ted Bundy represents them, that others will perceive them differently because someone of their race commits atrocities. Rather, white folks tend to see these criminals as "evil," deviant or otherwise not like them. 

To be sure, most black folks will not identify with a Muhammad or a Malvo, but fear being identified with them. Amid all the fears available out there, this is one fear that white people in the United States won't need to confront.

Cynthia Fuchs is an associate professor of English, African American studies and film and media studies at George Mason University.

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