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October 08, 2002

As you've probably heard, there's a sniper in my neck of the woods. Well, not really my neck, though he did make an excursion down near Fredericksburg recently. He specializes in shooting people who are going about their everyday business in public places -- gas stations, shopping malls, and as evidenced by his latest victim, grade schools. The previous victim, the one shot before the child, was a mother of two loading bags into her minivan. Most of us find the targeting of children and mothers especially despicable, though sniping in general seems reprehensible. I recall in Shelby Foote's excellent Civil War series the recounting of an officer's admission in his diary that he was glad whenever a sniper from either side was eliminated by the means of his own trade.

Far worse than enduring the minimally greater risk of being shot while in public, of course, is enduring the certainty that one will have to listen to government officials, and the reporters who cover them, mangle both the English language and the rules of logic. After the first round of attacks, for example, when law officers were first realizing that several shootings were related, a Maryland county official gave a press conference that started with the basic details most people want to know, namely, what do the police know? Because the police knew so little at the time, however, and because politicians and journalists seem incapable of not talking even when they have little knowledge of the topic they are discussing, the session quickly degenerated into something from a Monty Python skit:

Reporter: "What should citizens be doing to protect themselves?"

Official: "We are advising people to take extra precautions."

Reporter: "What does that mean?"

Official: "The most important thing is that people go about business as usual."

Reporters: (scribble scribble scribble)

Official: "We are also advising parents to take extra precautions with children. Be careful, be alert."

Because alertness can stop a high-velocity round, you know. While you're being alert, go about business as usual. Protecting children is one thing, but there's no need to jeopardize tax revenues in the process. Get out there and shop. But wear your Kevlar and be sure to serpentine. Has anyone noticed, by the way, that the secular mantra in a time of crisis is to "go about business as usual"?

Far worse than pronouncements of public officials, who have to say something, after all, if only because voters won't tolerate Tony's version of a press conference ("Guy out there with a rifle. If he's aiming at you, you'll probably get shot. If you see him first, aim for the upper body and save the taxpayers some money. Have a nice day"), is the breathless coverage by journalists. This morning I heard a local journalist interviewed on NPR. Apparently he has his finger on the pulse of the region, because he was using the familiar tactic of referring to "people here," which can be translated into "my friends, none of whom have a blue collar job or go to church."

Immediately before this report, an NPR reporter provided an interview with a psychological profiler, a job which, after "Silence of the Lambs," replaced bounty hunter as the thing I most wish I had spent my wasted college years learning to do. The profiler detailed how his profession uses things like location, characteristics of victims, time of day, etc., to dig deep into the psyche of the killer and discern facts that help nab him. Unfortunately, the reporter noted, as if explaining why profiling hasn't yet yielded a suspect, the sniper hasn't left any evidence that might identify him, there are no witnesses, and none of his victims appear to know him.

In other words, a psychological profile will probably be especially helpful. The reporter's use of "unfortunately," however, suggests that she hasn't internalized a lick of her own report. Her observation was akin to concluding a report on wilderness foraging techniques with: "unfortunately, there are no grocery stores in Yellowstone. Back to you Bob."

The reporter also noted that serial killers "often" target people on the basis of gender or minority status. Leaving aside the judiciousness of using "often" to describe the characteristics underlying a very rare activity ("suicidal religious cults often drink poisoned Kool-Aid"), I wonder if this claim is supported by data. Journalists often genuflect to received doctrine on white male oppression without bothering to verify, you know. Hey, this unsupported "often" technique can come in handy.

Speaking of drawing inferences without adequate data, one of the experts interviewed by NPR noted that some armchair detectives are clogging bandwidth with useless speculation about the sniper's motives. He mentioned by way of example speculation that the sniper was someone rejected by the Green Berets or the Navy SEALs, and with seasoned disdain observed the lack of facts to support such a conclusion. And just to show you an appropriate use of the word "unfortunately," I'll note that unfortunately, the expert's caution against speculation was preceded by his speculation that the sniper's recent targeting of a child was fueled by coverage of measures schools are taking to protect students. "He wants to show that we can't protect ourselves from him."

Apparently one has to be a certified expert to offer unsupported inferences.

All of which is to say I'm back, with two hours a day on the train to write my novel betwixt missives to you, faithful Sand in the Gears readers.

Posted by Woodlief on October 08, 2002 at 07:32 AM


Speaking of armchair detectives, I are one and unashamed at that. So I will venture forth to comment, assured of your disdain as you snort into your latte, that in fact statistically speaking serial killers do tend to target specific groups - young boys, young girls, prostitutes, blacks, etc. And generally speaking they focus on their own race unless the killings are racially motivated (i.e. white supremicist killing blacks, black militant killing whites). For whatever reason, most of the serial killers we know about are white males, which could be in part because we aren't looking where the others kill (for example, women are more likely to kill their children or people in hospitals, etc.).

That said, it is interesting to see the contortions the police and media are going through on this one. I'm actually going to dissect them today, myself.

An excellent post, as always, I just had to trot myself out into the line of fire ;).

Posted by: susanna at October 8, 2002 10:37 AM

Time for some carry laws to be introduced
What is Townsend's take on all this ?

Posted by: Howard at October 8, 2002 10:40 AM

I'm sure she's against the shootings...

Posted by: Kevin McGehee at October 8, 2002 12:59 PM

Susanna, haven't you learned by now that you have a lifetime exemption from my ire? I don't disagree with your point, which is well reasoned (as always). I take issue with the reporter's claim that most serial killers target people on the basis of gender or minority status. If most serial killers are white men, and most tend to stay within their racial/ethnic groups, then we have reason to question the reporter's throwaway claim.

Posted by: Tony at October 8, 2002 1:54 PM

Missed you my little BooBoo.
Love, Aunt Debbie

Posted by: deborah anderson at October 8, 2002 3:44 PM

well, I have watched a few TV shows that have profiled serial killers in the uSA and Canada. And since I grew up in India, I have my own theory about why there seems to be many more of these twisted people in the USA and Canada. See, in a traditional society such as India, abberant behavior, or even behavior that in the US might be considered just as exccentricities, or what people here would say "he's just a bit different", would never be tolerated. If you are a bit different while a kid, you either get reprimanded, or get a series of ass-whuppings, that teaches one to realise that one better toe the line, and act, and think like a "normal"person. If someone still i s a bit of a weirdo, everyone knows about it, and society keeps its eyes on these individuals. Sure this kind of social control leads to a less free, and a conformist society, but in a country of more than a billion people, there seem to be far fewer serial killers, rapists, child-molestors etc.
By contrast, in the USA, I h ave noticed, that due to whatever reasons, people who are weirdos, people with personality, and social disorders, and people displaying anti-social behavior patterns, live and work free, without anyone watching them, and without any social controls. So I wonder if in North America, people who go on to become the serial killers, the rapists, child-molestors essentially go about their merry way, until they actually victimise someone and get caught. then, ofcourse, they can expect all kinds of defense attorneys, and a whole industry of psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and activists for various oppressed groups turning somersaults trying to make excuses for the perpetrators, and trying to get him off scott free
So, a people have no incentive to change their behavior, join mainstream society, and become normal,productive member of society. What do y'all think of this half-baked theory of mine?

Posted by: sidss at October 8, 2002 5:53 PM

Tony! What has my life become if it offers no opportunities to make you spew and fume?!

Sid, I haven't lived in India or any other country other than the US, so I would have to bow to your greater knowledge of the group sociology there. However, generally speaking, I would say that all countries have a similar percentage of psychotic and dysfunctional personalities - they just find different outlets. For instance, while we do have serial killers, we don't have very many bride-burners. I know that's not something accepted in the mainstream in India, but it's still practiced and a problem there - the most recent statistics I could find quickly shows 5199 bride-burning deaths in 1994. Sure, it's not one person killing several people, but still a criminal dysfunction showing a similar disconnection of emotion. As for child molestation, I don't know specifically about India but I would be very careful before saying this most under-reported of crimes is more rampant here than there. Social mores were much more strictly enforced in the US in the Victorian era - late 1800s - yet even in the rarified air of the well-to-do of that era, crime existed. It just got pulled under the waves of public disapprobation for airing dirty laundry, just like your description of India.

So which is better? To wear your population's crimes out for the world to see, or press them down so they just pop up in different configurations, or hide in dark places where the victims never find relief? I prefer the former, because then at least society can go about punishing the offenders and helping the victims. I don't think we do enough to prevent crime, to address those showing serious propensities for violence, but I also don't think we're a less safe society than India.

As for serial killers, you might want to read this article. Just sayin', is all.

Posted by: susanna at October 8, 2002 6:54 PM

A native-born Indian who can speak like a good ol' boy: "What do y'all think of this half-baked theory of mine?" ??? Now that's aberrant!

And it's part of what makes America so culturally rich. Glad you're here.


Posted by: terry at October 8, 2002 8:31 PM

I heard a local journalist interviewed on NPR. Apparently he has his finger on the pulse of the region, because he was using the familiar tactic of referring to "people here," which can be translated into "my friends, none of whom have a blue collar job or go to church."

That's an awfully presumtuous and even elitist comment if I ever heard one. Are you sure you're not aborbing liberal ideaology thru osmosis in your new digs in DC?

Time for some carry laws to be introduced What is Townsend's take on all this ? HG

You have to see the shooter first to fire back. All the NRA friendly laws in the world aren't going to change the fact that you need to see what your shooting at. It helps anyway. So far no one has come foward with any kind of reliable eyewitness account, 'cept the white Isuzu, and even that hasn't been confirmed.

Posted by: Palmer Haas at October 8, 2002 11:16 PM

absorbing... damnit! Flubbed the spelling again.

Posted by: Anonymous at October 8, 2002 11:17 PM

Hey Terry,
Not only do I sometimes talk like a good ole'boy, but I also am a bluegrass music fan, and am play the guitar and banjo a bit!!!
Anyways, Susanna, thanks for your feedback - that was something I think about because, while there semms to be fewer "weird" people in India, it is indeed a society that sure is very repressed socially and otherwise. Also, this kind of high-handed social control leads to situations where ordinary citizens and the cops violate the civil liberties of t heir fellow citizens all the time. On further reflection, though, I think Susanna is right, it is better that the uSA has a more tolerant and open society.
But, Susanna, regarding the crime of bride-burning, or "dowry-deaths" as they call it is India, I think the numbers you got are seriously flawed. They are numbers from the Indian Federal Home Ministry. I would multiply those numbers by a factor of at least 2.5. And the sad thing about this crime is that it is usually the mom-in-laws and the spinsters in the extended family, who kill these young brides. Oppressed women, killing the new woman in the family. Sick, aint it?

Posted by: sid at October 9, 2002 8:33 PM