Sniper terror leads to frightening home truths

The United States’s idea of itself has often been expressed in the theory that anyone could become president. This has never been quite true — it’s necessary to be rich and white — but, during the fortnight of the Washington snipers, the country finally became, in a horrible way, a pure democracy.

In the nation’s capital, it became possible for anyone to be assassinated. On FBI advice, every Joe Schmo in DC remained in the family residence and cancelled public engagements. It was just like being the president.

Now, with two prime suspects for the shootings in custody, citizens can resume their official duties. But the lingering echoes of the sniper’s shots contain four troubling sounds for the country and only one welcome piece of noise.

The good news first: the US police may, with these arrests, have reversed the Keystone Cops image they had gained. While any inquiry might reveal failures that raised the tally of those assassinated — the killers having trouble getting through to the cops on the phone and so on — the eventual breakthroughs would have satisfied any fictional detective in a fat paperback.

An FBI analyst concluded from a gloat-note left after one shooting that the sniper might be Jamaican (as suspect John Lee Malvo has proved to be), while another cop’s apparent hunch that ”Montgomery” might refer not only to the DC county featured in the killing spree but also to a town in Alabama, appears to have identified the snipers.

Given that an FBI field agent is known to have spotted Middle Eastern students at flying schools before September 11 — but his theory was ignored by superiors — it’s clear that the US’s problem is not at the level of detection but of prevention.

Which is where the bad news begins. Terrible as the plane bombs were, constructive responses were possible: jet patrols above cities, improved airport security, driving instead of flying.

The two weeks of the DC sniper were a preview of a different kind of terror: unpredictable, unpreventable, rendering a whole population terrified and helpless. This is the terrorism of the future: bullets pinging through innocent air, poisons in the water supply, gas attacks.

Hopeful voices might interject that the two suspects do not seem to have been terrorists in the accepted sense: no links to an organisation have been proved. But the fact that they are reported to have expressed sympathy for the US’s enemies and that one is a convert to Islam touches on another of the country’s deepest fears: the enemy within.

Racists have in the past had to contend with the inconvenient fact that American serial killers are almost always white. Now the sniper case will be used as ammunition by the bigots who host and call radio talk shows.

Ah, ammunition. The third piece of bad news for the US and its president is that those airwave ranters and others on the right will surely now at least have to discuss the fact that the sniper came out of a culture legislated to be a marksman’s paradise.

The final residue of the gunman is less a problem for the nation than an observation about it.

After the World Trade Centre massacres, there was much talk of how terrorism aimed at skyscrapers had featured in numerous Hollywood films. Once again, on this occasion, the movie screen has proved to be a mirror: Phone Booth, a thriller about a city sniper, has been postponed, while Anthony Hopkins abandoned publicity for Red Dragon because of a small plot coincidence.

Beyond those script/life overlaps, the taunting phone calls to police, the letters pinned to tree trunks, the sniper’s announcement that he was ”God” are all precisely the behaviour of a Hollywood psychopath. My point about this is not censorious — blaming filmmakers for copycat behaviour — but the extent to which so many Americans now behave as if they were in a film. Life is subconsciously scripted by Hollywood.

George W Bush may feel satisfied that a distracting case is closed. It would have been hard to start a war while the citizens of the city he lives in were too frightened to go outside. But those gunshots in his neighbourhood held a message for the president. A politician who has always believed in guns and the armed forces should reflect on how and why a former soldier, John Allen Muhammad, seems to have turned his weapon and training against his own nation. — (c) Guardian Newspapers 2002

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