24 October, 2002
Searching For the Sniper
When is profiling appropriate?
t r a v i s l e e
After the tritely named "Beltway Sniper" claimed his ninth victim in the string of shootings throughout suburban DC, some witnesses reported seeing an "olive-skinned man" fleeing the scene in the ubiquitous white van. Of course the context of these post-September 11 times had already driven the media, in all its wisdom and thoroughness, to speculate of a dastardly Al Queda connection. With little evidence or grounds to do so, they have invited guests to talk of a new terrorist strategy, as if Bin Laden had decided that taking out Washingtonians one at a time is somehow more effective and terrifying than ramming jet liners into skyscrapers or detonating car bombs in front of packed night clubs. So sorry Fox News, CNN, and all the others, but this is just not the case. That "olive-skinned man," I'm willing to bet, is the result of the times and not what someone actually saw.
I do not make this argument based on some notion that it would be wrong to claim an Arab terrorist is behind these shootings because that would be politically incorrect based on profiling. As you may have noticed, I referred to the sniper as a male. I am a profiler, or a criminal profiler rather. Certain groups perpetrate a disproportionate amount of certain kinds of crime. Young, Arab Muslims have been responsible for most of the terrorist acts committed against America for at least the last 20 or so years. Certainly not all, but definitely most. Similarly, most serial killings, such as that which is unfolding six hours to our north, have been the work of 25-to-35-year-old white men. Of course, law enforcement should keep all options open. With more terrorist bombings occurring over seas and more threatening "chatter" being picked up by US intelligence services, there is cause for caution regarding further terrorist acts within the US. But to make it seem, as the media has, that terrorism is a motive, even a likely one, for these shootings is irresponsible and contrary to the history of serial killings.
White men have a near monopoly on serial murder. In fact, 84 percent of serial killers are white and 90 percent are men. Of course, the names of Aileen Wuornos and Karla Fay Tucker come to mind as prominent serial killers of the female persuasion, due more to their recent executions than the crimes they committed. But Dahmer, Bundy, Berkowitz, Gacy, and the like are the type much more likely to decide what a good idea it is to murder multiple people for no reason other than some personal or psychological motivation, be it lust, paranoia, schizophrenia, etc. Since this is the case, 25-to-35-year-old white men ought to be the profile for and focus of the investigation into the man responsible for the current shooting spree. Though, as mentioned, law enforcement has to keep all avenues of investigation open, talking of a terrorism link is premature. The shootings have most definitely terrified and terrorized Washingtonians and their suburbanite brethren, but in a manner that is not consistent with the kind of Islamic terrorism that a supposed "olive-skinned" suspect or Al Queda link would indicate.
Terrorism, be it Arab or otherwise, always has some political agenda that comes with it, which is why the method usually includes murdering many, many people in a very public way (e.g., Oklahoma City, 9-11, Bali, any city in Israel nearly every day, etc.). The current psychopath gunning down patrons of Exxon and Home Depot seems more intent on simply killing and playing with police than on conveying some kind of political message. Perhaps he is just really upset about the Valdez still, or really hates suburban sprawl. Sure, a psychotic loner and a twenty year-old Saudi upset about Palestine may both be murderers, and that, in the end, may be all that matters. But claiming that what is happening about the Beltway is related to the war on terrorism exaggerates the threat posed by the sniper and creates even more fear than already exists. Such speculation is born of our times and current situation. This is understandable, but a dose of reality and common sense is needed. Not every shooting or string of shootings is the result of Al Queda's latest plot. Probably none of them are. This guy has much more in common with the Son of Sam than with Mohammed Atta, and everyone--Fox News, CNN, the witness who saw the "olive-skinned" man--ought to know that.