OK, so I’m obsessed with the Washington sniper – or, as the French media here in Quebec call him, “le tireur fou.” That’s “the crazy shooter” for vous. No mealy-mouths here! Those French call a spade a spade.
You could say that over the last few weeks the sniper had gradually become my constant (if rather morbid) companion. If I was in my car, I’d tune in to talk radio. If I was at home, I’d turn on CNN. When I was at work, I’d periodically check the Web. It got to the point where I couldn’t even see anything odd about the phrase “Chief Moose”.
There are some who say that the blanket coverage of this crazy shooter is just too much. Let’s move on, they say exhaustedly.
You couldn’t throw a shell casing these last few weeks without hitting some cable news network’s coverage of the goings-on. CNN actually suspended commercial breaks last night to show us endless aerial views of a suburban backyard sectioned into parallel grids.
We didn’t know whose backyard it was. But, we were repeatedly told in excruciating detail, police had removed a tree stump from it, wrapped it in plastic, and put it in a U-Haul van that was “more than half full.” Furthermore, the stump may have been used for target practice.
It seemed like an awkward thing for an aspiring sniper to do in a cramped suburban backyard surrounded by nosy suburban neighbours, but we couldn’t know anything for sure. And the thing we couldn’t know the most was what any of this had to do with our crazy sniper friend, anyway.
Of course, that didn’t stop me from drinking it all in fascinatedly.
My eyes may not have always been riveted to the TV, but my ears were. I even fell asleep to the gentle, soothing sounds of CNN news anchors awaiting an imminent press conference.
We were treated to a steady procession of interviews with experts who knew as little as we did. Still, these were no shrinking violets. Unabashedly short on fact and long on speculation, they theorized tirelessly.
And paradoxically, it seemed that the less we all knew, the more I was hooked.
Everybody was an armchair theorist, and everybody had something to contribute. One man triumphantly called a phone-in show and announced the solution: the police had only to enlist the help of the local mafia, and the case would be solved. Another trumpeted his bravado in the face of danger, and told a reporter that he’d even walk around with a bull’s-eye painted on his T-shirt. That would be exactly the kind of guy that, as a Washington resident, I’d want to have sticking closer to me than a brother. Particularly when I was filling up on gas.
From so-called "astrologers" patiently explaining the tarot to former FBI investigators not even remotely related to this case, everybody weighed in on the debate.
I, too, was busy making tenuous connections. I remembered the Islamist training camp the police broke up in Baltimore, where one of the tourist attractions happened to be target practice. In a flash of rare geographic insight, I placed Baltimore in Maryland, the scene of the shootings. Could the shooter be someone who had trained in one of these camps?
Privately, however, I still thought that when all was said and done and the guy was being sheepishly led off in handcuffs, he’d turn out to be what the press like to call a “right-wing militia” member.
So when I found out that this crazy shooter – or one of them – sported the name “Muhammad” and was a recent convert to fundamentalist Islam, who may possibly have attended a training camp previously linked to Islamic militants, I was, surprisingly, surprised.
I’d hate to be like one of those people who tend to see Mossad/CIA conspiracy theories behind everything from prematurely curdled milk to the spread of AIDS. The human mind being what it is, we love to tease meaning out of meaningless events. We are adept at making connections, even where there are none to make.
And you don’t even have to be what psychiatrists call “some whacked-out nut job” to believe weird things. Even the most seemingly rational people have some frankly bizarre beliefs.
I know a wonderful Persian couple. When I would visit them, they were warm and generous and hospitable to a fault. I would even leave their house laden with homemade pickled vegetables and home-cooked Persian leftover food in Tupperware.
When she was pregnant with their first child, he would hover over her anxiously and anticipate her every move with the view of easing it for her.
One day about a year ago, the conversation turned to politics.
“I don’t think George W. is very intelligent,” he began.
“Oh?” I murmured politely. I didn’t know where this was going, and it didn’t hurt to be cautious.
“You know, I don’t think bin Laden was responsible for the attacks of September 11,” he continued blithely, unaware of my, by now, suddenly rising blood pressure. “I don’t think they could have planned something that sophisticated.”
“What’s so sophisticated about driving a plane into a building?” I asked in a rather strained voice.
“Well you know George Bush’s ratings are very high now.”
I tried to patiently explain the folly of thinking that George W. was behind the September 11 attacks. It was sheer lunacy, I began to explain, to suppose that an American president would stage such an attack on not only his own citizens, but on those of other countries – all for the sake of ratings. If ever a president knew the fickleness of ratings, it would be George W., whose own father lost a second term, despite having basked in the glow of stratospheric Saddam-like post-Gulf War approval ratings. Besides, these things just don’t happen in democracies, where press and opposition party and electorate combine to act as a check on any president with homicidal tendencies. And what of the self-denigrating inconsistency of believing that George W. was a stupid man who could plan such sophisticated attacks, that Islamists seemingly found beyond their abilities?
But I didn’t get that far.
He leaned forward confidentially. “And you know, 4000 Jews didn’t show up for work at the World Trade Centre that day.”
I could swear I could hear a gushing, gurgling noise that I believe was the blood rushing past my ears, but I can’t be certain. I do have a vague recollection of rising half out of my seat to angrily refute him, after which he looked rather alarmed and tried to pacify me.
I’ll skip over the rest of this distasteful episode. But all this goes to illustrate my point. These were some very highly educated and respectable people, with some very irrational – and dangerous – beliefs.
I like to think that life is strange and wonderful enough already, even with just the truths that are accessible to us, without having to manufacture truths that aren’t.
So I would hate to start seeing Islamic fundamentalists lurking behind every terrifying crime. But I can hardly turn on the news without feeling that there is no spot on earth that is not a hotbed of anti-Western Islamist activity.
Call me a hopelessly hidebound, traditional kind of girl, but I sigh nostalgically for the days when a serial killer was just a good, old-fashioned serial killer, and not the latest potential manifestation of a cataclysmic clash of civilizations.