THE SNIPER SHOOTINGS - MY WRAP OF LIVING IN THE AREA
JOHN ALLEN MUHAMMAD AND JOHN LEE MALVO CALLED HOME
FOR THREE WEEKS
Here is the summary of the Washington sniper incident I'd previously promised. I try and explain my reaction to the event itself and some of the issues it raised.
I was alerted to the sniper attacks by a guy at my wife's work who rang to tell me about it. "Someone is shooting people near where you live; it's all over the TV; maybe they've caught whoever did it; you shouldn't be concerned." At that moment I wasn't concerned; I was oblivious. Then I turned on the television to see what he was talking about, and three weeks later, I finally got to turn it off again.
That phone call was an early indication that most of us thought the five shootings of that first day would be the sum total of the event, that someone would be caught, or found dead, and that would be that. The first post I wrote (typos and all) said this:
This is the cliche come to life. The local news is currently providing blanket coverage of the fact that two men are driving around the area where I live (within a 3-mile radius) shooting people. Five people are dead. People have been advised not to drive and to stay in doors. The schools have been locked down. I just spoke to the office at my son's school and was told that children would not be let out for the time being and that all the schools doors were bolted shut. They said to ring back at 2pm (one hour) for more info, but what are the chances of getting through when every parent rings at the same time? Looking out the window I can see women with prams rushing home, having obviously just heard the news. My natural reaction is to go to the school and get Noah, but I guess he'll be safer where he is.
LIVING IN FEAR?
As that first post suggests, my experience of the whole event was strongly affected by the fact that I had a son at school in the area. My own and my wife's vulnerability was one thing, but for both of us it was Noah's safety that kept us on edge. I noticed an article in The Washington Post
the other day that was most dismissive
of such concerns:
The sniper's reign of terror was without doubt a rational cause for fear, and I don't fault any of those who took precautions to protect themselves or their loved ones. But over the past week our public reactions to the killings -- the media coverage, the poses of the authorities charged with ensuring our safety, the language in which we talked about the mystery man or men who held us in suspense -- crossed an invisible but palpable line into social hysteria. The sniper was "holding the region hostage." An AP report had us "paralyzed by fear." Parents faced "an agonizing choice" about whether to send their children to school.
The author is right to note that there was hyperbole, but the article both misstates and understates what it has been like for some of us in the Washington D.C. area.
My experience was that, in fact, no line was crossed into hysteria. No-one was paralysed by fear, though IMHO there was good cause for it. As to that final point, many parents actually did
face an "agonizing choice" about sending their kids to school. Most of us went right ahead and did it, but it was only after some pretty tough calculations about relative levels of safety and concern for not alarming our kids and tring to keep life as normal as possible.
wrote a fantastic piece
about such choices, and although I basically disagreed with his conclusions, well, it was a great piece:
The Beltway Killer has changed life more profoundly for Central Virginia children and their parents than Osama bin Laden and the War on Terror could have envisioned.
There are no Bellicose Woman Brigades or "Hawks" rising up to battle this killer the way such individuals and groups rose up to stand tall against shadowy foes in foreign lands. We're not so bellicose or committed to "normal lives" when our children are threatened where we live.........
....I feel for school administrators. They have had tough calls to make and are under tremendous pressure from parents worried about their children's safety. I would not have closed the schools. I would not have put the schools in lockdown. I would have been fired.
A killer operating over a 100 mile stretch has shot 13 people. One was a student at a school in Maryland, a student who thankfully has survived this viscious crime. The killer has a pattern of setting up from a distance, often in a tree line, firing one shot at a person who is alone or with only one person near. The killer has issued a warning that children are not safe, regardless of where they are. There is no indication that the killer will deviate from his sniper-like attacks, unless police are not telling us everything.
What would I do? Assign a police cruiser to each school and give that officer school staff or volunteers in sufficient numbers to constantly walk the 1-300 meter boundry between the school and all wooded or other areas where someone could set up and fire a shot before and during school. I would react to the threat, not change everything about the school experience.
I fear that the way we have reacted to this threat--a very limited threat, in many statistical ways--will come back to haunt us as cretins and creeps of all kinds see the power of random violence and chilling threats.
Personally, I was happy for the schools to be locked down. In fact, if they weren't, Noah wouldn't have gone to school. As it turns out, had it not been for the shooting of the school boy in Bowie, maybe the lock down wouldn't have happened. I dropped Noah at school that day and heard about the schoolboy shooting on the way home. I rang Noah's school to see what measures were in place and they hadn't even heard of the (then) latest shooting. In fact, the woman I spoke to told me it was "a normal day." In other words, although the sniper was still on the loose, there were no plans to lock the school down.
Let's remember, this was still early in the piece, five people had been killed in a single spree the previous week, so who was to say another spree wasn't possible? The fact that one school kid had been shot made it fairly reasonable to assume that others might be targeted, maybe in another spree-type killing. It was only later--in fact after this--that the killer got into a sort of one-every-couple-of-days routine that we became familiar with.
on the statistical probability of being shot fail even on their own terms. People were shot in shopping centres, gas stations and schools. Do you're calculations on how many of those there are and the odds drop substantially.
In other words the calculation is less, gosh there's about 5 million people around here so I've got a one in five million chance of being a victim, and are more like, he's after school kids and there's only a few hundred schools. This might be irrational and mathematically unsound, but it more closely resembles the not-too-ridiculous thought processes people have. Besides, to tell you the truth, I don't really know what inputs to provide for the mathematical formula that has a bullet in my son's chest after the equal's sign.
So I don't think we did live in fear, though I know from talking to people that many adjusted their behaviour, not going out if they thought they didn't really need to. This wasn't panic; this was prudence.
Let's also not forget that a lot of the kids themselves were pretty scared. Friends with eight and ten year old daughters going to a school in Virginia that backs onto a wooded area report that their younger daughter was genuinely scared and on occasion couldn't sleep at nights.
Some have complained about the blanket coverage the sniper case got and I'm vaguely sympathetic. It did
drown out other equally important news and discussion, and some of the discussion it generated was the worst sort of tabloid bilge imaginable.
Still, I was glad for most it and even related a bit to the media's addiction. I found the same thing myself on the blog, where news of the sniper and related matters shouldered out virtually everything else I might have written.
The fact is, it did dominate my thoughts and it was sort of--not therapeutic--but calming
to be able "talk" about it. There was also the fact--which I'm sure spurred the media on--that you always thought you were on the verge of new information, whether it be another killing or perhaps an arrest, a clue, a breakthrough, so you didn't want to stop following it.
The simple fact is, knowledge, however tangential, was a sort of power; it offered a modicum of control in a uncontrollable situation and I was pleased to able to turn on the TV at any time and know I would instantly hear the latest.
I can say with some confidence that nearly everything I guessed about the sniper was wrong. I thought he was most likely a white guy with something approaching a gun fetish and a pretty dysfunctional background. Well, maybe I wasn't that far off.
I considered the terrorist connection and although I didn't dismiss it entirely, I thought it low down the list of probabilities. I got pretty fed up with those who absolutely insisted from the very beginning that it was Middle Eastern terrorism. Why? Well, because the evidence for it was scant, to say the least, and there was an air blame-shifting in many pundit’s insistence on a Islamic terrorist connection – an unhealthy willingness to pin it on foreign weirdos and ignore the possibility of a homegrown ratbag.
It seems no coincidence that many of those who insisted most loudly that this was Islamic terrorism were also the ones who had an ideological stake in shifting attention from any blame that might be placed upon lax gun laws and some sort of “gun culture”.
I was wrong about other things too.
All the way along I thought the guy was a psychopath (in the clinical sense), in it for the thrill of the kill and a sense of power, but I'm more inclined to say now that it was mainly a plan to get some money. I'd say there was also something like professional pride in Muhammad's approach to his task, and a sort egotistical belief that at some stage he had become invulnerable.
But the planning associated with the killings--the modified car, the scouting of sites--suggest that there was always a definite goal, and the note reveals that goal to be a sack load of money.
Towards the end, too, I had sort of convinced myself that the murders were being carried out by an official of some sort, most likely a cop, but maybe an a paramedic or the like.
My logic was two-fold: the perpetrator needed to have been well disciplined and to be “invisible” at the crime scene. I was reasonably perplexed by the way that he got away from each scene undetected, so there was a certain logic in thinking he didn't leave at all and just blended in with the other officials when they showed up. I guess I knew it wasn't that likely as I never mentioned it in any of my posts, but I did think it.
THE GUN CONTROL DEBATE
I didn't shy away from this one, though I only mentioned it in the first place in a sort of disbelief at the way gun advocates made their case. As an outsider, I'd heard how passionate US gun advocates were for their position, but really, I had no idea. And although I can accept the sincerity of many of these people, judging by some of the emails I got, I sincerely doubt the sanity of others.
I'm not sympathetic at all to most of the arguments gun advocates make, but I can see the sense of those who argue that America has reached the point of no return in terms of significantly reducing the number of guns in circulation and there is therefore some sort of sense in the self-defence argument. But as I said at one stage: this is less an argument than an admission of defeat.
Still, most of the bloggers I argued with on this point were very civil and I think I returned the courtesy. The one time where perhaps I crossed a line was when I said something to effect that on the wider issue of gun control Americans should just shut up.
My point was that they were arguing from inside the peculiarities of the American gun experience which they tended to universalise by quoting circumstances in other countries that they didn't understand. Thus I wrote a longer piece
about the differences between American and Australian approaches to the idea of government to suggest that this was one area of historical divergence that led to completely different approaches. I was trying to make the point that American gun practice shouldn't and couldn't be taken as a norm, couldn't be universalised, and that maybe if advocates genuinely listened to alternative approaches they might learn something.
Still, the way I expressed it got up a few noses. I know it upset Patrick Nielsen Hayden
--a blog I like a lot--and I think it even cost me a link on his site. All I can say is that I still maintain that position, but accept I could have expressed it differently.
Truly, it was a horrible three weeks. Walking Noah in and out of school every day, keeping him close, with a police car parked out the front, and knowing that everyone was studiously avoiding talking about the one thing they all were thinking about was disturbing. How people live in war zones or places where there is always the threat of this sort of injury is almost beyond me. I’m sure you adjust, but I’m not sure you should.
Now that Muhammad and Malvo are in custody, speculation continues as to their motives, and it looks like they were responsible for quite a crime spree in the lead up to their final act. I’ll follow all this lightly as I have really lost interest. Already the arguments over which jurisdiction will get to execute them are wearing thin, as are the endless interviews with people who sold them coffee or watched them work out in a gym.
As to whether they should get the death penalty, well, my opinion hasn’t changed. I’m against capital punishment and if I happened to be on their jury I would vote against it. If they get it, I’m hardly going to shed a tear, but I fail to see what purpose it will serve, even in the greater scheme of things.
A lot of people have asked me if it has changed my feelings about America. The answer is that it hasn’t, not in any profound way. I certainly don’t think any less of the place and still am very pleased to have the opportunity to live here.
It does strike me that Americans are way too tolerant of such occurrences, and that perhaps there are strands in the freedom, liberty, role-of-government arguments that need to be unravelled and reconsidered. I’m not trying to link the homicidal tendencies of two criminals with an entire country’s culture, but all such arguments here really do seem caught in well-worn ruts that maybe it wouldn’t hurt to get out of.
I’m also seriously thinking of joining a shooting club and learning something about guns; not out of any particular fear arising from these events or because of a desire to be armed, but simply to gain some insight into the attraction. Because, whatever else it is that causes people to argue so passionately about gun ownership, attraction to the implements themselves seems to be part of it. More broadly, I just want to know from the inside what I’m talking about.
I picked Noah up from school last Friday, the day after the arrests, and I asked him if they had played outside during recess. “Yes we did,” he said and then ran off ahead of me across the basketball court. I lunged instinctively, but pulled myself back and let him go. He ran to the other end of the court and turned around and did a little dance at the top of the key, poked out his tongue and ran away again. I ran after him, but not too fast, letting him stay well ahead of me, as dads do, not catching up.
Twenty feet between us across a school playground: that was the difference between yesterday and today.