In the Line of Fire

George O’Brien

Horrible and shocking as the shootings on the first day were, there was still the possibility that they would be containable. It was difficult to imagine the actual killings, of course, or to claim to know what might be going on. But at least, initially, the scenario was recognisable. It wasn’t as if this particular assailant had invented multiple killing. Shortly before he opened up, five people in a small-town Nebraska bank had been killed by robbers. Earlier in the summer, Fort Bragg – home of the Green Berets, the 82nd Airborne Division and Delta Force – had seen a rash of wife murders (a number of the perpetrators, some of whom also committed suicide, had recently returned from Special Ops in Afghanistan). In the 1980s there were so many murders committed by disaffected post-office employees that succumbing to homicidal rage became known as ‘going postal’. Specific shoot-ups come all too readily to mind. An outbreak of sudden death by gunfire in suburban Maryland was bad news, but it was nothing new. As long as it could be thought of as a spree, it had a genre, and that not only made it part of the known world but lent it distance as well. A probably swift and certainly predictable ending was not far off, we thought – not out of complacency, but out of a need not to be held too closely or too long in the grip of enormity. The breakdown was serious, but temporary: we would move on out as efficient Americans from under the shadow of death.

But that was then. In the three weeks that followed the first shot, we were without a script. Those with information – the police and the perpetrator – seemed not to know what to say. Those who were unable to stop talking – CNN and its clones – had little worth saying, though everybody saying it was an expert (it’s unnerving to realise there are so many profilers out there, all apparently in gainful employment). The prevailing feeling was that we were far away from the anticipated conclusion. Where were the siege, the shoot-out, the take-down, the film at 11, the quickie paperback, the nickname (The Rockville Pike Rifleman) when we needed them? The genre wasn’t playing by its own rules. Even time was letting us down, the way it passed without process, seething and eddying between gunfire and rumour and lull. All that the four million of us in the Washington area knew for certain, other than our own fear and loathing, was that something was out there, armed, psyching itself up. I wonder if the citizens of Baghdad ever feel that way. The day before the first shooting, the White House Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer, proposed a ‘one-bullet’ scenario for getting rid of Saddam Hussein. In Washington, one bullet was too many.

This was the sniper’s time, and his alone. Only he had anything to show for it. And part of what he had to show was a determination – which had been there from the beginning, no doubt – that his activities be neither contained nor containable. He knew no boundaries, ranging at random across a great web of geographical, juridical and administrative lines. Was he a spree killer or a serial killer? He was both. He domesticated the sniper’s stock-in-trade, stealthily diminishing distances, establishing an invisible presence, violating neutral space: bloodying the parking lot, the filling station, the school forecourt. Anonymous though these places are, they’re vital to our going about our business. They’re ours. Everybody’s. They’re what make suburbs possible. The shots weren’t coming from the inner city, but they drowned out the ones constantly being fired there – not that anybody seems ever to hear those, anyway. These victims weren’t whores in a tenderloin district. They were ‘people like us’, differentiated only by dumb luck. And they were taken mostly in broad daylight, too – our time.

In all the dread and anger and peculiar sense of humiliation at having one guy call all the shots (‘I am God’), at least there was the white van. It was a godsend, even if the kind of van it was and whether it was white or cream kept shifting, like everything else, right to the very end, when it turned out to be a blue car. But at the time it was a foothold, something everyone could recognise, as close to a fact about the gunman as we were going to get. White vans were everywhere, safety valves disguised as clues. Students kept telling me they’d seen one, and wondered if they should call the tip line, as everybody else was doing, so that there was too much traffic for the line to handle. And then, it took only one call to end it.

There was a spate of e-mail, too, a lot of it from strangers offering guidelines on new ways to park, new methods of walking across a carpark. One unsigned set of instructions began: ‘As you already know I have been a Swat Sniper for about 3 years. My specialty is Counter Sniper for Presidential and dignitary protection.’ It contained the instruction: ‘Zig and zag and walk at angels.’ According to one early theory, the reason some of the murder sites were close to branches of Michael’s, the craft-store chain, was that the shooter wished to be thought of as the Archangel Michael, expecting the cowed populace to recall the name’s meaning (‘who is like God’) and to realise the end was nigh. The killer’s ventures out to Fredericksburg and the murder in Manassas gave him a Civil War kink (these places are famous battlefields). The kink was suggested, so the theory went, by the recent anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, in Maryland, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War (and quite near where the man and boy were arrested). Some, remembering the ‘terrible swift sword’ from the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’, combined the Archangel and Civil War theories.

The theory that was both the most soberly considered and the last word in apocalyptic jitters was that al-Qaida was on the loose again, a trained squad turning on former neighbours and acquaintances, the enemy within. The police action stopped short of a military campaign; the Constitution saw to that. But for the first time in a domestic case, surveillance aircraft were requested from the Pentagon. Shades of homeland security to come? And then again, if this guy was a sniper, what war was he fighting in? The World Series was on. The ads included the latest from the Army, based around its most recent slogan (which replaced ‘Be All You Can Be’): ‘An Army of One’, whatever that’s supposed to mean. It can’t have inspired John Muhammad, can it?

After he was caught, everybody was soon out shopping again. But it wasn’t easy to believe it was over. There was a lot of information to take in: John Lee Malvo, 17, for instance. For a while it was uncertain where he would be tried, which produced the unlovely spectacle of a ‘who fries fastest?’ race between the various eligible jurisdictions. Virginia won, since the execution of juveniles is legal there, and its anti-terrorist legislation is the most likely to make successful prosecution a cinch; Maryland, where the death penalty was suspended in May, couldn’t compete. But in any case, there’s a strong sense that it’s all over bar the date of execution. Very possibly that’s all people are interested in. The support of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence did not make much difference to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (Robert Kennedy’s daughter), the Democratic candidate for Governor of Maryland. She lost. The Democrats, evidently thinking that to act like an opposition would cost them, lost. With the war party riding taller in the saddle than ever, it certainly feels like Fall, the season of losses.

John Muhammad may be finished, but he’s not all there is to it. In its firepower, clandestinity, aggression, randomness and ease, his campaign is a counterpart of sorts to the activities of his fellow Gulf War veteran, Timothy McVeigh. In an oblique, tangential, whispery, interstitial, DeLillo-y way, that war seems to keep wanting to come home. It was a war that went almost unspoken, unimagined; went straight to video; and has lingered largely by having given rise to unfamiliar medical complaints among the victors. There seems little chance of finding out what has been so repressed that it must return so murderously.