Beltway Snipe Hunt


Each new day seems to begin with a new lead in the Metro D.C. Sniper Hunt, and each day seems to end with a still less coherent puzzle. Yesterday certainly fit the template, with two men being taken into custody—first, the media suspected, as potential snipers; then, as that seemed less likely, as signposts toward the real killers. Finally, at day's end, the suspects were revealed as a couple of very unlucky illegal aliens. Like the hero of Sullivan's Travels, we keep trying to move forward but can't quite manage to get out of town.

My own baseless theory is that the murders were committed by a mad postmodernist. The sniper certainly seems more self-aware than earlier serial killers, and it has been widely suggested that he or she delights in undermining the police theory of the moment with each new target. If you want to foster suspicion of master narratives, you could do no better job than the killer has; he seems eager to do to criminologists what Burroughs and Pynchon did to literary critics. The Saturday slaying fits this there-is-no-pattern pattern, coming after much speculation that the perp avoids crime on weekends.

Yet the drive to find patterns persists. The Washington Post hailed this morning's murder in Aspen Hill, possibly committed by the sniper, as "a return to the assailant's initial pattern of shooting in the morning," since "Three of the last four shootings have taken place in the evening." Whatever leads the police are following, I sure hope they're sturdier than this.

There's talk of larger patterns too: not just among fringe conspiracy theorists who can spot a secret society behind every social spectacle, but among middle-of-the-road conspiracy theorists with axes of their own to grind. Last year they might've blamed Gary Condit; this year, with only a little more justification, the favorite suspect is Al Qaeda. With so many revelations and un-revelations to choose from, it's easy to absorb whatever facts serve your theory and ignore the rest—or else to accept on faith that the contradictions will eventually resolve themselves in your favor, like a devout believer's conviction that fate's twists will be reconciled by God's ineffable plan.

Of course, the reason people keep looking for a master narrative that explains the murders is because there is such a narrative: Someone is killing those poor people, unless you want to discount the ballistic evidence that ties their deaths to the same gun. He has reasons of his own for his spree, and hopefully someone will soon decipher them and capture him, in whichever order proves more convenient. If not, we will be left to contend with more than one brand of uncertainty.