Shooting Blind


So far, the Beltway sniper case has been an exercise in the sort of gruesome spectatorial frustration and irredeemable violence that in a saner world would be limited to films starring Harvey Keitel. Apart from a few stagy, almost unbelievable clues—most memorably the death card from a Tarot deck with "I am God" scrawled on it—the police and the public have nothing to go on regarding the 11 D.C.-area shootings (and nine deaths) that began on October 2.

Even the expectation of a composite sketch—based on accounts from eyewitnesses to Monday's shooting outside a Fairfax County, Virginia, Home Depot—came to nothing. "Because of darkness and distance and perhaps excitement and adrenaline at the time, we are unable to come up with a composite," said Montgomery County police Capt. Nancy Demme.

As The Washington Post and other sources noted, the witnesses gave "vague and inconsistent accounts," disagreeing on virtually all details other than the sex of the apparent shooter. All the witnesses agreed they'd seen a man, but some reportedly described a with "with dark skin, others with olive complexion, of Middle Eastern appearance or Hispanic"; one apparently said he was "not white, not black." Such imprecision is mirrored in the descriptions of the killer's (or killers') vehicle, which has been variously described a white Chevy Astrovan, a Ford Econoliner, and a white panel truck.

While the paucity of clues has stymied the police, who have been reduced in their desperation to issuing tips on "how to be a good eyewitness," it has had no similar effect on pundits, who as a class have never been overly concerned with evidence to begin with.

For many in the commentariat, the unknown identity of the shooter is functioning as a Rorschach Test, telling us more about the writer's state of mind than the killer's. Hence, would-be video game regulator and Florida attorney Jack Thompson gazes upon the carnage and divines the malevolent influence of virtual international crime gangs like the Mario Bros.

New Republic columnist Michelle Cottle asks the tough question implicit in Thompson's take: "With the cultural pump primed for random bursts of violence, what saves us from witnessing a Natural Born Killers-type episode every month—or every week?" Cottle plays at profiler ("So far removed from the human sounds and smells of death, the sniper is essentially playing some sick video game…Why? Well, when you're talking about a method of execution that, at least from the sniper's vantage point, is so quick and impersonal as to be almost antiseptic, the question can too easily become, 'Why not?'"), before coming to a conclusion every bit as authoritative and unburdened by reality as the one reached by the Warren Commission back in a simpler America: "This sniper is not the beginning of some broad crime trend. He is a lone sociopath."

In his smoker's heart of hearts, Justin Raimondo may well agree with Cottle as to the ultimate identity of the shooter. But for the perpetually outraged rhetorical lone gunman behind antiwar.com, such a question is of second-order importance to the more pressing matter of attacking right-wingers who dare besmirch the legacy of Pat Buchanan. In a characteristically bitchy (and eminently readable) column, Raimondo charges various National Review Online writers with "monomania"—an interesting charge coming from the head of a Web site devoted to a single theme and a writer who rarely goes more than a few paragraphs without invoking the prophet Murray N. Rothbard.

In particular, Raimondo persuasively takes aim at James S. Robbins. In his essay "Who is the Sniper?", Robbins lays out his unpersuasive case about why he thinks "the sniper is either an active member of al Qaeda, a bin Laden sympathizer, or someone motivated by the same type of hatred." Such thoughts, writes Raimondo, belie a preexisting agenda, not insight into the present matter.

In a larger sense, pundit-driven ratiocination may be as inevitable as it is speculative. The current case calls to mind nothing so much as Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." That's the 19th-century short story featuring literature's original detective, Auguste Dupin. A series of witnesses overhear a murderer talking in what each claims to be a different foreign language—a Frenchman believes the language is Spanish, a Dutchman hears it as French, an Italian thinks he hears Russian, and so on. Dupin, the first and arguably greatest—and certainly the most ludicrous—crimestopper in literature, quickly (and correctly) concludes that in fact the killer is an escaped "Ourang-Outang."

When the sniper is finally captured, the revelation of his identity will no doubt make monkeys out of many pundits.