An army of principles can penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot.
- Thomas Paine
In a sense, maybe it can be seen as a good thing that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Perhaps even more than that, it might have been the best thing that could’ve happened to America at the time. Had the Baptist minister not been assassinated, we would in all likelihood not remember him as we do now. Because when a public figure is assassinated, history has the tendency to assume a carte blanche while writing down what it feels he should be remembered for. And to ignore what, for whatever reason, it feels should be forgotten.
To whitewash a man’s life.
We don’t remember that while King was a graduate student at Boston University he plagiarized significant portions of his PhD thesis while his professors knowingly looked the other way. The “Dr.” in his title then carries lies and deceit and dishonesty we would rather not acknowledge. Because acknowledging them would mean tarnishing his legacy, admonishing someone who’s supposed to embody godliness.
After all, we’re told from a very young age that Dr. Martin Luther King saved America from herself, forgave our sins of racism and oppression with the power of his dream. Hundreds of years of oppression, all washed away with the blood of his assassination. We are told his was a dream that did not die with him, we are told his dream was his final message to the American people as they gathered on the Capitol Mall of Washington DC on that spring afternoon.
And yet, that dream was not his final message. In what would be the final months of his life Dr. Martin Luther King began to preach a message that was markedly different from the one we willfully choose to remember him by. It was a message that earned him the condemnation of almost every mainstream newspaper in America, with even Reader’s Digest warning he was trying to bring about an “insurrection.”
No one is taught this in school, for the same reason that no one is taught that Dr. King cheated to get his doctorate.
Because all of us seek to hold onto the ideals that tell us that everything is going to be okay. That we aren’t as ugly and oppressive as those who hate us make us out to be and that if we just hold hands and sing kum-by-ya once a year the problems will just take care of themselves. But then that would be a lie. As millions of Americans living in and around Washington DC were so terribly reminded in the fall of 2002 when Dr King’s final message came horribly to life through the same means that had caused his death.
i i i
You probably take three-inches for granted on a regular basis. Three-inches might’ve been the difference between being able to ride the rollercoaster or having to watch you big brother go without you, between tripping up the stairs and running up them, or accidentally selecting the wrong grade of gas while you’re filling up your car. But then three-inches can be the difference between a scary moment and a fender bender, a missed shot and a National Championship, or between a surgeon taking your life and saving it.
On October 2nd three-inches was the difference between Ann Chapman, a clerk working the cashier at her local Michael’s craft store, only feeling an odd rush of air ruffle her hair – and having her brain explode out the side of her head. For whatever reason the high-velocity round meant for her head missed. It might’ve been a gust of wind or it might’ve been the sniper not adjusting for the store’s glass window deflecting the bullet’s path or something else entirely. But he missed.
Less than an hour later the sniper went for a more reliable body-shot that found it’s mark, and Maryland’s most affluent suburb recorded its first shooting death of the month. Shooting deaths have never been an uncommon occurrence in the DC metropolitan area. So the first few deaths didn’t really cause much of a stir.
They rarely do. The sniper certainly wasn’t fazed by the deaths, and the collective denizens of the beltway’s perpetual grind didn’t so much as downshift when the first death was reported. Which is what you’d expect, since it was only five-sentences long and appeared on page B2 of the next morning’s Metro section in the Washington Post. Just another death.
He had been on the board of his church, an active leader in his eleven year-old son’s Boy Scout Troop, a Civil War buff, and had arranged the donation of ten old government computers to the nearby public elementary school which he mentored at. But the victim isn’t remembered for any of that and never will be by any except those who had been closest to him. The rest of us wouldn’t even be able to tell you his name, but if asked you’d be able to say you remembered when you heard he – whoever he was – had died.
The answers to why he died as he did aren’t as simple as the facts that lay in the parking lot of the Shopper’s Food Warehouse where his punctured aorta and severed spine led to his death. To find them we must return, for one more time, back to the start.
When Ramzi Yousef first arrived in New York City in the fall of 1993 his first stop was the local mosque, where he figured he’d able to find men willing to help him in his cause. He was right, although only one of the men had any previous experience with anything that resembled an act of war.
That man had traveled to Afghanistan to fight alongside his Muslim brothers against the invading Soviets, sustaining wounds from a Russian mortar in his arm and leg while he was there and returning home with the vow to continue his jihad against the West there. But unlike the rest of the muj who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets, home for Clement Rodney Hampton was Brooklyn, New Jersey.
It was here that he began attending the mosque on Atlantic Avenue that housed the Blind Sheikh, who was first introduced as one of the most prevalent Connectors of the modern social epidemic of Islamic fundamentalist terror. The Blind Sheikh gave Yousef the final blessing the bomber felt he needed to undertake his mission – a blessing that carried plenty of weight since if the Blind Sheik had enough authority to authorize the assassination of Egypt’s head of state he could surely okay Yousef’s plans.
But what the hell. How did a black guy from Brooklyn become part of an international terrorist plot to and kill tens of thousands of his fellow citizens by bringing down the World Trade Center Towers?
As with most complex questions there’s no direct answer, however there are plenty of hints and partial-truths that can begin to provide some explanation. When you begin to see the big picture the question is no longer “how is it that a black guy became part of an Islamist terrorist plot on American soil?” instead its “how come he’s been the only one?”
And the thing is, he hasn’t been the only one. He’s just the only one who wasn’t stopped before he began to carry out his plans.
i i i
One little, two little, three little – four little citizens.
Chaos and pandemonium are regular participants in the metro area’s morning commute. The suburbs surrounding Washington DC, many of which lay inside the border traced by Montgomery County, are as densely packed as any in the nation. But the system of roadways constructed to convey that takes the residents of Montgomery County to and from their jobs was built to hold the population of a decade ago.
A population that has grown steadily from when the Beltway, the massive superhighway that loops around our nation’s capitol, was first built, to reach nearly a million by 2002. And sections of some the main streets, such as Connecticut Avenue, Rockville Pike, and Georgia Avenue, which trace out the spokes of a wheel from their common hub at Washington DC haven’t been enlarged since as far back as the Eisenhower administration.
As a result it’s almost impossible to make your morning commute through Montgomery County without encountering several chains of flickering taillights and at least a few encounters with gridlock. And usually, by October, the weather has turned from unbearably hot and humid to depressingly gray and chilly.
But on the third day of that month, the metro area’s commuters were at least greeted by sunlight, mild temperatures, and a soft breeze coming out of the west as they stepped out of their doors and into the grind. At first, the traffic didn’t seem to be too bad. Until the haunting dopplering of sirens and twinkling lights of an ambulance responding to the first call about a block off Rockville Pike, one of the main streets running like a spoke into DC, forced the already clogged traffic into an even slower mush.
The paramedics arriving at the scene thought they were responding to a freak lawnmower accident. This was because Jim King, the employee at the car dealership who had called 911, had told the dispatcher a man had staggered off his riding mower – gasping and clutching his chest – before collapsing in front of him.
And since the paramedics found James “Sonny” Buchanan laying face-down about two-hundred feet from a green Lawn-Boy mower, it made sense that a malfunction of the mower had somehow resulted in the coffee-mug size wound in his chest that they found when they rolled him onto his back. Well, if not sense, at least it was some kind of an explanation. After cutting off his shirt the paramedics found a faint heartbeat, so they did their best to stabilize him. They had no way to know that a .223 caliber high-velocity bullet had fragmented into his heart’s left ventricle after first punching a hole in his left pulmonary vein, and so Sonny Buchanan was as good as dead.
Only thirty-one minutes later, the police officer who was flagged down outside a Mobil gas station on Connecticut Avenue by Caroline Namrow, a British national working as an urgent care doctor for Kaiser Permanente, had no such false impressions.
Namrow had been sitting in her van when she’d seen a dark-skinned man with the typical portly belly of a well-fed taxi driver stumbling toward her with a dazed look on his face. He’d then collapsed against her van. When she rushed out of her van she noticed the huge smear of blood against her passenger-side door, quickly dialed 911 and after telling the dispatcher someone had been shot and then rushed into the Connecticut Avenue traffic to flag down a passing police cruiser.
Namrow and the police officer she’d flagged down began to share the rhythmic drill of chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth breathing characteristic of CPR, but there was little practical reason. Pieces of the bullet had shredded the left lung, a chamber of the heart, the pulmonary artery, and the aorta of Premkumar Walekar’s fifty-four year-old body. He flat-lined shortly into the slow hurry Ambulance 22 was making down Connecticut Avenue on its way to Montgomery General Hospital, his final commute adding even more congestion to morning commute that’d already been backed-up by the ambulance pressing Buchanan to the hospital.
It was only a few minutes after Walekar’s time-of-death was being written on the small paper tag that was to be attached to his right toe that a 911 call came from the shopping center adjacent to the Leisure World retirement community which sits just off Georgia Avenue, not even two miles from the Mobil gas station the last call had come in from.
This caller was Ralph Sheldon, a retiree who lived in Leisure World with his wife Dorothy, whose old green Schwinn bicycle he’d ridden over to the shopping center so he could mail a letter. Right before he reached the Post Office he heard a loud bang, and after looking up the road where the sound had come from saw that the pretty woman wearing jeans and an orange blouse was slumped over. And then he noticed the dark red blood pouring out of her skull.
In slow-motion, Sarah Ramos’s skull would’ve looked just like a vase that’d been struck with a hammer. A hole at the point of impact, and then the near-instantaneous web of fractures crawling outward from that point and around the rest of what used to be her heard. Ramos, an immigrant from El Salvador who spoke little English, had been trying to make ends meet by cleaning houses and had been waiting to catch the bus to another job when the high-velocity bullet quickly and graphically ended her life.
But it wasn’t the fact that she was quite obviously dead that kept an ambulance from responding to the scene of Sarah Ramos’s death. All the ambulances on duty in Montgomery County Maryland that morning were still tied up in the traffic caused by the normal morning rush and the bodies of Sarah Ramos and Premkumar Walekar. And so about an hour after Ramos’s shooting, when Maria Welsh, a pediatric intensive care nurse, somehow heard the next victim, Lori Lewis Rivera, pleading for help over the buzz of the Shell station car vacuum that was still running in her hand and called 911 the dispatcher knew help would be slow in coming.
Rivera was laying on the ground next to her burgundy minivan, and soon begun to go into convulsions that caused the blood coming out of her nose and mouth to splatter Roarsarch stories of her life onto the pavement around her. Welsh knelt in the blood pooling around Rivera’s body and felt for a pulse on her wrist as she noticed that Rivera’s chest lacked the steady rise and fall of life, and that her lips and fingers were steadily turning a sickly shade of blue.
When Welsh had called 911 she’d said that she heard an explosion and then seen a woman collapse. But the dispatcher, by then well-aware of the day’s first three shooting deaths, suggested that maybe the sound could have been a gunshot, and radioed for help where Lewis was calling from, at the intersection of Knowles Avenue and Connecticut.
With no ambulance or crew of paramedics en route, the only immediate official help Lori Rivera would be getting came from Montgomery County police officer Terry Ridgley, a firefighter from across the street who ran over and began CPR, and another police officer who’d been on patrol in the area. The second officer to arrive, Richard Grapes, was also all-too aware of the shootings which had slowed the DC-area morning commute beyond its typical crawl and ran from his cruiser with his twelve-gauge shotgun at the ready and a heavy ballistics shield made from clear bulletproof plastic that he used to shield the trio as they attempted, in vain, to stabilize Rivera. When paramedics finally did arrive they said Rivera was already dead, but they rushed her to nearby Suburban Hospital anyway.
By then it was a little after 10AM, and so the unusually slow rush-hour that’d been congealed by the three bloody shooting deaths had cleared for the most part. But over the course of less than two and a half hours the four shooting deaths had caused Montgomery County’s murder rate to rise by twenty-five percent. And this was just the start.
One little, two little, three little, four little citizens.
i i i
When Ramzi Yousef arrived on American shores he was just one strand in a web of Islamic extremism that was both much older and much more dangerous that himself alone. Illustrating this is simple, as it only takes four jumps to connect Ramzi Yousef with Sayid Qutb.
After Yousef first arrived in New York City he sought the guidance and approval of the Blind Sheikh, a man who’d fled his native Egypt after being accused of playing a key role in the assassination attempt of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. Twenty-seven years before he was assassinated, Anwar al-Sadat had sat as a judge at the trial of the Islamic extremists accused of planning and executing a botched attempt to assassinate Gamal Abdul Nasser, then the President of Egypt. One of the men sentenced to life in prison for his role in that conspiracy was Sayid Qutb. Ramzi Yousef – the Blind Sheik, Anwar al-Sadat, Gamal Abdul Nasser – Sayid Qutb.
It’s no coincidence that Ibn Taymiya, the godfather of fundamentalist salfi thought who witnessed the execution of Baghdad’s Last Caliph after Christians betrayed the Muslims of that city, also wrote his defining and most influential tracts while held in prison.
It was this time in prison and the subsequent death sentence that followed it in 1966 that granted Sayid Qutb his immortality, and secured his heritage to modern Islamic fundamentalism. It was while in prison – while being tortured, held in cages with vicious dogs, beaten, undergoing two heart attacks with no medical treatment to speak of – that Sayid Qutb wrote his final and most important book, Milestones, which was smuggled out of his Egyptian prison page by page. A book so incendiary that being found to possess just one copy of it was grounds for execution.
Spending time in prison is, all too often, a recurring theme in the development of fundamentalist Islamic thought. But, history lessons aside, the real worry is the prison’s role in its current manifestation.
The American one.
i i i
Malcolm X learned from a young age that if you wanted something, “you had better make some noise.”1 He grew up with three older siblings in the poverty that marked the lives of many in America circa 1925, but no group more starkly than the blacks. Before he was even born, Malcolm X encountered the cruel reality of race relations. While his mother was pregnant with him the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan, brandishing rifles and shotguns, galloped up to their small house in the middle of the Nebraska night and demanded that the family leave. To punctuate their point, they shattered every window in the house before swarming darkly back into the night.
Malcolm’s father moved the family to Michigan, being personally very well acquainted with the easy violence white Americans would visit upon blacks who rocked the boat. Three of his six brothers had been killed by white men, and in a few years X would lose his father to white violence.
The poverty that Malcolm X’s family lived in grew worse after his father was killed when Malcolm was six, his father’s body nearly cut in half by the streetcar that’d been used by white men to murder him. In school he was called “nigger” and “darkie” by the white kids. When Malcolm told his eighth grade teacher he wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up the teacher responded that he needed to be realistic about being a nigger, and that being a lawyer wasn’t a realistic goal for a nigger. That maybe he should aspire to be a carpenter.
Welfare allowed the family to scrape by, and Malcolm X admitted it was a wonder he didn’t mistake the “Not To Be Sold” that was printed on every food-stamp as a brand-name. That was, until the depression of 1929, when dinner was often boiled dandelion greens and the situation finally got bad enough that X had to be placed in the care of a foster family. It is not only these early experiences, but the years that would come between them and his release from incarceration in 1952 that give Malcolm X’s words the legitimacy that can only be rooted in authenticity of experience.
X worked as a shoe-shine boy, sold sandwiches on trains, washed dishes, and hustled everything from weed to weapons to women. He worked the numbers racket, descended into month long binges on crack and liquor, lived in the poverty of the innercity and with the fear that comes with not knowing where you’d lay your head each night or what your next meal would be. Malcolm X never graduated from high school, and learned how to spot a sucker long before he learned how to write. He burgled, fenced, and stole to make a living before he’d even begun to shave.
So it should come as no surprise that he’s not exactly considered an American hero, unlike another African-American in his generation who grew up in rather more genteel circumstances.
i i i
Dr. Martin Luther King was also born into these tumultuous American times, being only four years younger than Malcolm X. And he too grew up with the bitter sting of racial prejudice. However stings, as with all things, are relative.
When Dr. King’s father spoke out against the cheating farmer who employed his sharecropping grandfather, the farmer was so poisoned by the venom of racism that he told Dr. King’s grandfather he should shut his son up – or he’d do it for him. This interaction would make King’s father so angry and hamper his development so much that he would quit work, go get his high school diploma, and then go on to graduate from Morehouse College. Segregation kept a young Dr. King from attending white schools, and so the black children in the middle class neighborhood he grew up in outside Atlanta had to go to all black schools. Here they were forced to ride in the back of the bus when they traveled across the state to complete in oratorical competitions.
And then one time when Dr. King’s father accidentally ran a stop sign in the family car and was pulled over by a cop who addressed him as “boy,” Dr. King’s father talked back to him, and then the cop – full of all the cruel hatefulness of white America – wrote him a ticket. But Dr. King kept the rage he felt from being unable to swim until a pool for blacks was built in his neighborhood to go along with the ones that only allowed whites, from being told he had to sit in a certain section of the shoe store and buy hamburgers only in certain stores, and from being smacked by a rich white women whose shoe he stepped on this one time, in check. And Dr. King’s parents made sure they didn’t spoil him, he had to work every summer to help pay for his tuition at Morehouse College, which he entered as a third-generation legacy.
Eventually Dr. Martin Luther King ended up at Boston University, where he would continue his “intellectual pilgrimage to nonviolence”2 by plagiarizing significant portions of the doctoral thesis that put the “Dr” in front of his name.
It was 1951, and Malcolm X was in the fifth year of his seven year incarceration on fourteen different criminal counts. X’s accomplice had nearly passed out in court when he totaled up in his head the various eight-to-ten year sentences for the dozen-odd robberies they’d been found guilty of during their sentencing. Lacking almost any formal education, he had no idea what serving them “concurrently” meant, and so figured he would be spending the rest of his life behind bars.
Malcolm X was headed to prison, had yet to hold down a legitimate job for any meaningful period of time, and his formal education had ended in middle school. He had grown up fatherless and in poverty, surrounded by the predatory crime that still lurks wherever communities are fractured by poverty and violence. Dr. King, meanwhile, had rarely missed a meal, and was publishing his doctoral dissertation, or at least the dissertation that Dr. King put his name on even though several other people had written most of it. It was titled “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.”
Malcolm X spent those same years behind bars and doing his best to get high on penny matchboxes full of nutmeg mixed into glasses of water, earning the nickname “Satan” because of his antireligious attitude, and finally becoming functionally literate after completing a year-long correspondence course. It was this last fact that would direct Malcolm’s X’s life down the course it was destined to run. Because one day, one of X’s brothers came for a visit.
i i i
Americans are fond of thinking that the Civil Rights movement solved all of our racial problems, and set an equal place at the American table for anyone to succeed, regardless of the color of their skin. At best, this is a particularly ugly and close-minded delusion.
Nearly any way you look at it, our current economic crisis is impacting our poor black communities much more acutely than our poor white ones. The most obvious indicator is the still skyrocketing unemployment rate, which for young black males is now twice as high as their young white counterparts. But simple unemployment doesn’t capture the full scope of economic distress.
Even the very idea of what it means to be poor is color-coded, as while 1 in 3 blacks live in poverty, less than 1 in 10 whites do. And yet the very definition of poverty itself now varies to the point of absurdity, since “poverty level whites control nearly as many mean net financial assets as the highest-earning blacks, $26,683 to $28,310. For those surviving at or below the poverty level, this indicates quite clearly that poverty means one thing for whites and another for blacks.”3
The impact of these facts have echoed across generations, as nearly three-quarters of all black children grow up in homes with no net financial assets. That’s nearly double the rate of white kids. And nine in ten black kids grow up in homes without enough monetary reserves to last more than three months at the poverty line if their income were to drop, roughly four times the white ratio.4
And Eminem seemed to have no sense of the irony that was invoked as his self-consciously white autobiographical film, 8 Mile, highlighted the hopeless plight of Detroit’s urban black community that’s existed for generations. The 8 Mile district was created in 1941, when a six-foot wall was built around a black enclave that was deemed unfit to accept loans from the Federal Housing Administration. This was “part of a system that divided the whole city, in theory by credit-rating, in practice by colour.” And so the segregation that emerged in Detroit and spread to many other cities “was not accidental, but a direct consequence of government policy.”5
This policy of segregated mortgages became known as “red-lining,” and by the 1950s one in five black borrowers was paying interest at over 8%, while it was about impossible to find a white family paying more than 7%.6
And yet this economic line extends far past that generation. The fact that blacks are foreclosing at a much higher rate than whites in the current crisis was predestined by the conditions of the loans they received, as banks turn down equally-qualified blacks much more often than whites, and forced blacks to pay higher interest on their loans. Housing values are indelibly color-coded, as the average value of a white house appreciates much quicker than a black house. All of this is snowballing into a collective institutional bias that cost black families at least $82 billion even before this current crisis began.7
Hotlanta served as a case study for mortgage-based racism, as the Pulitzer-winning series in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution “The Color of Money” so aptly captured. It showed how blacks were routinely rejected for loans which whites in a comparable economic situation were accepted for. And this phenomenon wasn’t isolated to one city, as a 1991 study showed that out of 6.4 million mortgage applications nationwide, even after income was controlled for – blacks were rejected twice as often as their white counterparts. However that wasn’t the worst of it, in urban centers such as Boston, Philly, Chicago, Minneapolis, blacks were rejected three-times more often than whites.8
Even well-to-do blacks have been unable to escape from this institutional prejudice. Wealthy black neighborhoods in the DC suburbs have a much tougher time getting loans than low-income white areas, and in Boston blacks living on the exact same street as their white neighbors and earning similar incomes found it much tougher to get a mortgage than their white neighbors. Joe Kennedy summed up the cumulative effect of this racial injustice well, describing “an America where credit is a privilege of race and wealth, not a function of ability to pay back a loan.”9
The city of Baltimore partly captures how higher-rate loans to blacks have affected foreclosure rates, with several Wells Fargo loan officers testifying that they targeted “mud people” for “ghetto loans,” resulting in 71% of foreclosures in that city being made on black homes in recent years.10 And so, even when income and credit score are controlled for, across the nation blacks are more than three-times more likely than whites to have their home foreclosed and be thrown out into the street.11
America may have nominally advanced from “separate but equal,” however the reality of racial disparity still haunts the bottomlines of black mortgages and checkbooks, holding them back from fully embracing the dream we’re all supposed to share.
Other statistics drive the point home with increased clarity. By 1995, the wealth-gap between black and white was so wide that blacks owned only 8 cents of wealth for every dollar owned by whites. Just eight-cents to the dollar. In other terms, as of 1998 the average white household’s net worth was $100,700 higher than the black average. And that wasn’t even the peak of the gap, according the most recent data, from 2007, the gap in household net worth is now $142,600.
Take a moment to consider that gap.
Your average white American family has a $140,000 leg up on the average black American family. And those families don’t live intermingled among the same neighborhoods, the difficulty black families have securing a mortgage loan have created high concentrations of blacks living in certain neighborhoods while whites live mostly in others. By 1993, 86% of whites lived in communities where blacks made up less than 1% of the neighborhood.13
This racial stratification has created neighborhoods ripe for infection by radical Islamists hoping to begin the accidental guerrilla syndrome. Black neighborhoods have more crime, more poverty, and less governance than wealthy white ones – the ideal conditions for an outside terrorist infection to set in.
i i i
If you didn’t live in the suburban area in and around Washington DC during the weeks that followed the first sniper shootings its about impossible to really understand the way the Sniper’s bullets impacted everyday life. Sure, following 9/11 people who worked in tall office buildings were a bit freaked out and nervous for a bit, but they continued to come to their jobs. And most government employees soon had to deal with daily security screenings and occasionally bomb sniffings as they made their way into work, but into work they still came.
Looking back, 9/11 more unified America’s citizens than terrified them. The demand for home-adorning American flags shot to unprecedented levels and it became damn-near unpatriotic not to have an American flag stuck somewhere on your car. But in substance everyday life for the 98% of the nation that didn’t live in the heart of New York remained unaffected.
You might cock your head a bit longer at the sound of a jetliner overhead, but that was really about it.
On the whole 9/11 became a impetus to national unity – in the weeks following the attack, everything from our televised pro sporting events to our nightly news became exercises in patriotism and togetherness and defiance. You might be less likely to book a flight online, but it was very likely you emailed a lost friend to tell them that you missed them and that you were sorry things had ended as they did. Because very few people were truly terrified by the attacks of 9/11, symbols had crumbled but that only caused the fabric of our society to be bound more tightly around the ones we had left and the ones we loved most.
Nothing of the sort occurred in October as the DC Sniper methodically laid victim after victim against the silent and unflinching pavement. Every element of society became clotted with the blood of his victims. The first morning of killings was followed, never more than three days later, by more deaths. Deaths which came at intersections you recognized, at gas stations you’d filled your car up at, in parking lots you’d parked in. There was no telling who would die next – no segment of society was being spared. And so, inside the first week, the mechanics and behavior of DC-area communities began to change.
High school football teams went through plays meant for games that had been suspended indefinitely on the lifeless floors and under the sterile lighting of a gym, instead of surrounded by the smells and memories of grass and dirt and grit that high school football forever anoints its followers with. For weeks, the paths of children walking to school changed from careless and curious Family Circus-esque meanderings to the tactical and strategic zigzags of hardened soldiers operating in hostile territory. Gas stations no longer enticed new customers by offering free carwashes or lower prices but by stringing up giant tarps in front of their pumps to keep you out of sight while you waited for your car to fill, still pacing behind the tarp in an effort to be a harder-to-hit moving-target. Sitting at a dead stop in your car during rush hour wasn’t frustrating, it was out and out terrifying.
You no longer walked your dog, you ran your dog.
And, in no discernable pattern and with no unifying link, the bodies continued to fall. After the first day of four shootings, a grandfather was followed by a mother-of-two who was followed three days later by a thirteen-year-old boy followed two days later by Vietnam vet. Then came a bus driver. Victims were shot at bus stops, at gas stations, in front of their schools, in parking lots, and inside a city bus. Schools kept the blinds closed in front of every window that had them and taped colored construction paper meant for art projects in front of the windows that didn’t.
Every traffic light seemed like the pull of a trigger in a game of automotive Russian roulette. Halloween pumpkins rotted in their patches, remaining unpicked because spending time bending over in an open field to find the perfect canvas for your jack’o-lantern would mean turning a class of 3rd Graders into a gallery of shooting ducks.
You only felt safe in your own home as long as the window you were standing in front of was shuttered from the evil lurking and killing outside of it. This was terrorism at its awesome finest.
i i i
It was a near-perfect blend of Tactical and Symbolic Terror. The DC Sniper was slowly crippling the whole of society by causing the movement that defines a society and binds it together into a whole – the trips to stores, the daily commute to work, and the everyday journey to school – to become coated in a fear that was warping the very nature of a society’s education and economy. The shootings went farther than targeting the tactical resources of society, they were attacking society itself and making every one of its members live and act within a context that was defined by paranoia and terror. Not for a few days, but for weeks.
Never before had a campaign of Tactical Terror so deeply and thoroughly effected a society. For nearly a month the millions who lived in the DC metro area couldn’t leave their homes without fearing for their lives and the lives of their children. The only parallel to their experience is the experience of those who have lived in a war zone. Which is far from a coincidence.
But the difference is that war zones are created when hundreds of thousands of bullets are fired and thousands and thousands of pounds of high-explosives fall from the sky. The DC Sniper created a war zone with less than a dozen bullets by producing a display of Symbolic Terror that was flawless, and which meshed perfectly with its Tactical element.
Unlike terrorism that falls heavily onto the Symbolic end of the balance because they attack symbols, the theater here occurred because of how the attacks were made and not because of what they targeted. The Sniper’s bullets didn’t leave crumbled and unidentifiable remains like an explosion, they left a dramatic scene that was pristine except the blood and body of one victim who had been carnaged by something unseen.
And this carnage was recorded and broadcast furiously by every element of the media. It was there when you unrolled your morning paper and there every time you turned on your television at night.
There was no escaping it, no ignoring it, and no forgetting it.
i i i
Those residents of northern Virginia who might’ve felt safe because their lives were connected to the residents of Montgomery County by unhalting chains of roads, but separated by the Potomac River and a state border, were brought into the awful fold when one of their own was shot seventy-five miles away from Montgomery County in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Caroline Seawell, a forty-three-year-old mother of two, had her lung, liver, and diaphragm punctured by a shot that entered her lower back and exited through her chest. At the time she had been consciously moving as much as she could while loading her minivan, to present a harder-to-hit target to the shot she knew was Out There.
And this time when a man at first rushed over for help, he realized how vulnerable he was kneeling over her body and fled back to his own car.
Three days later, on October 7th, a middle school student who’d been dropped off at school by his aunt since he’d been being banned from riding his bus for a few days after being caught eating Twizzlers on it was shot in his stomach. The Sniper had intended to shoot from three to five children that day, but fled in the pandemonium caused by thirteen-year-old Iran Brown’s bloody collapse to the ground. And because the show must go on, the media was also full of experts doing their self-important best to analyze what was going on. Almost to a man, they claimed the killer was another white middle-aged serial killer whose traumatic childhood and genetic predisposition had led him down this path to violence.
Unfortunately, this didn’t make any sense at all. A serial killer’s victims always share a common link – some combination of age, gender, and race. But here the victims shared no gender, ranged in age from thirteen to over seventy, and came in every color of the human rainbow. And a serial killer’s violence always, without exception, has a signature that reflects his personal internalization of the violence.
This can come in the form of rape, multiple stab wounds, tenderly laying a victim to rest after she is killed as painlessly as possible, mutilating the corpse, strangulation, damage caused by blunt trauma, and other details you’d rather not think about. Here a single bullet wound could serve as no more of a personal signature than simply putting a dot on a piece of paper could ever serve as your signature on a legal document.
The DC Sniper wasn’t a serial killer – he was a terrorist. One so novel that he requires the boundaries of modern terrorism to be rethought and then redefined. But to understand why he is so unique, we return to Malcolm X’s prison cell.