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So the sniper may not have been an Angry White Male, after all

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 24, 2002 -- With two suspects in the capital-area sniping case now in custody, police still donít have many answers. But if it turns out that John Allan Muhammad and his stepson, Lee Malvo, were indeed the individuals responsible for the shooting spree that killed 10 Americans in October, one thing will be clear: all the crime experts who predicted that the killer would be an angry white male in the mold of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh were wrong.

Itís true that Muhammad, from what little information we know, bears certain similarities to McVeigh: military veteran, anger towards the government, penchant for shooting, and para-military training. But there are two key differences: Muhammad is not white and is, unlike McVeigh, a convert to Islam. Officials are already signaling that Muhammad has expressed sympathy for the September 11 hijackers. If the early signals hold up, a handful of commentators should be recognized for being on the right track.

Michelle Malkin wrote as early as October 11 that "the media immediately embraced the Angry White Male Ö But the faces of evil come in every color. We must be prepared for all possibilities, not just the ones that play into reporters' preconceived notions about hunters, soldiers, tattoos and guns." Even more impressively, Malkin, who earned her journalist stripes in Washington State -- where Muhammad is said to have lived -- invoked the example of James Ujaama, "a black American Muslim convert [who] was indicted in August on charges of conspiring to help al Qaeda establish a terrorist training camp on a ranch in southern Oregon" to buttress her point. While no link has been alleged between Muhammad and al Qaeda, that example nonetheless looks good now.

Another stand-out piece was penned by Caleb Carr, most famous for authoring the 19th century crime thriller, The Alienist. On October 18, Carr wrote of the seeming lack of similarity between the various victims of the sniper. "As said above, the victims share neither sex, race, nor age group -- a fact that has led to the general declaration that they shared no characteristics at all," wrote Carr. "But in fact, they did: They were all Americans, engaged in the typical American activities of pumping gas, going to school, shopping, etc. -- activities that have suddenly been identified as potentially lethal in the capital area. But since nationality and activity do not fit the established criteria for serial or spree killer victims, they have been generally discounted."

Even if al Qaeda bears no connection to the recent killings, it is possible, as officials suggest, that the killer could have a mere loose feeling of solidarity toward that terrorist organization. Remember, the innovation of al Qaeda is that it does not operate as an ultra-hierarchical Spectra-like group. Rather, it relies in large part on a loose network of adherents who commit seemingly random acts of violence in the groupís name. The July 4th shooting spree at the El Al airline counter in Los Angeles -- remember that one? -- fit into that pattern, as did the shooting at the Empire State Building in 1997.

Now that law enforcement authorities have been forced to move beyond the "Angry White Male" profile in the sniper case, looking beyond the conventional wisdom may be useful in some of the other unsolved cases of our time. First and foremost in that category, Iíd place the Anthrax investigation. Perhaps the reason officials have failed to uncover the perpetrator behind the wave of Anthrax attacks last year is that theyíre looking in the wrong place. Broadening the scope of potential assailants may make it easier to bring them to justice.

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Issue Date: October 24, 2002
"Today's Jolt" archives: 2002  2001

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