The Sniper's "Proper" Story


By the end of another toxic day in the Washington region Tuesday, the major story was deservedly about death: Another person had been murdered, apparently by the notorious sniper, and a lunatic threat to the area's children had finally been made public. But these overwhelmed a different story that was also important, and that has dogged the entire spectacle: This appalling case has become a study in the poisonous mismanagement of information.

There is no more revealing example than the manner in which police have handled a lengthy letter, apparently from the sniper, that was found after the weekend shooting in Ashland, VA. When Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose appeared before the press at noon, he was asked repeatedly about the letter, and whether it contained any threats against schools or children. Schools in the Richmond area near Ashland had closed following the weekend shooting, and there were unconfirmed reports that they had done so at the urging of Virginia police. There were numerous accounts about the sniper's letter, its contents, and even its style, in newspapers from Richmond to Los Angeles.

Moose replied repeatedly—and sometimes testily—that a press conference was not the right "forum" in which to discuss such reported threats. If he had any information about threats to public safety, he said, he would bring them to the attention of a "proper forum."

But information cannot be directed in and out of forums that authority deems "proper." Chief Moose spoke as if there were a choice between disseminating information or withholding it. There is no such choice. The real choice is between disseminating good information or allowing bad information to circulate. That is, the chief could either make public those aspects of the letter that involved threat, or he could allow people to speculate about the presumed threats based on partial or false information available in the printed press, on the Internet, or through the usual rumor mills.

Indeed, bad information was everywhere Tuesday. Assembling bits and pieces of stories based on leaks and hearsay, people could conclude 1) that the sniper was a foreign terrorist, because the letter was described in some stories as being in very poor English, who 2) was planning "extreme violence," because that phrase had appeared in press accounts, and 3) was planning to target schools, because numerous Virginia school districts had closed down.

The actual threat, when Moose finally divulged it much later in the afternoon, was bad enough: "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time." But knowledge of the actual wording, and even that it was a "postscript," at least gave people some context in which to consider the nature of the threat to their families.

Withholding such information is both paternalistic and contemptible. Police have a right and even a duty to protect aspects of their investigations, but not at the expense of citizens' rights to protect themselves and their families. Even so, the problem in such cases goes beyond the morality of withholding information, to the wisdom of doing so.

When authorities choose to keep such things to themselves, the underlying assumption appears to be that they are in possession of the knowledge relevant to a given issue. Chief Moose's desire to restrict the sniper's letter to an "appropriate forum" is only one example; another is the Bush administration's decision last year to restrict public exposure to Al Qaeda videotapes directed at Americans. The most charitable interpretation of such decisions is a desire on the part of authorities to "protect" the public from disturbing threats that people can do little about in any event.

But in thus shielding the public, authorities cut themselves off from what the public knows. Knowledge isn't gathered at the top of bureaucracies, as Chief Moose and the Bush White House seem to believe; it's dispersed throughout the populace. The more that accurate information is allowed to circulate, the more likely that additional relevant knowledge will surface. It's a well-known phenomenon. It's how, using the "prestige" press, the Unabomber was finally identified. It's also how, using such "vulgar" media as the syndicated TV program, America's Most Wanted, hundreds of other fugitives have been captured.

We have often been told that somebody knows something about this murderer that could lead to his capture. To elicit that something, authorities have dangled a reward that now stands at $600,000. Perhaps authorities should show people the sniper's letter or his tarot card, or play them the tapes of his telephone calls. It's true that money sometimes elicits knowledge. But information, good information, elicits even more knowledge.