A Sniper and His Spectacle 

The relationship between a serial murderer and the media emerges.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Here in the Washington area, all 143 Starbucks have stacked and chained their sidewalk tables, lest the chain's customers be shot by the rampaging local sniper (or possibly snipers). Schools are locked down and guarded by police. Four of the sniper's victims were shot dead while in gas stations, and many nervous drivers are reportedly running on empty; station operators are reporting that people are paying for gas and then driving away without pumping any. Radio "experts" have been advising that drivers crouch low while filling up and that pedestrians walk around in zigzag patterns. Every day brings another long list of cancelled events.

What's been going on here? It may be worth somebody's life to speculate. The chief of police in the Maryland county that has taken the investigative lead, Montgomery County's Charles Moose, exploded at the local press for reporting that a tarot card was found at one shooting site, sarcastically offering to turn the investigation over to the media.

But the relationship between Chief Moose's press conferences and the shootings are among the few apparent patterns that have emerged in the bizarre case. To some degree, the later shootings appear to be "about" the investigation of the earlier shootings.

For example, no sooner had Chief Moose announced that a "geographic profile" of the murderer was in the works (to deduce information about where he or she might live) than the shootings moved from his county to a neighboring Maryland county and into Virginia. In a second example, no sooner had Chief Moose pronounced schools to be safe than a 13-year-old student was shot. After that shooting, a tearful Moose appeared at yet another of his multiple daily press conferences to say that things had gotten "really personal," and he was literally right. The sniper appeared to be monitoring the cops attentively and may have been basing some of his murderous choices on the chief's remarks.

There's one sensational "clue" -- that tarot "Death" card found in Maryland's Prince George's County with a note to police scrawled on it. "Dear policeman," it reportedly read, "I am God." Obviously, nobody currently knows what this may reveal about the sniper (assuming it was the sniper who placed the card), if indeed it reveals anything. But what has struck a number of observers is that leaving such a card, and such a message, has the appearance of a cheesy cliché. It may be an action borrowed from low-grade movies and bestsellers. In other words, it may be a media-conscious effort to create a criminal "signature" and perhaps even a media "character" and thus to add melodrama to the narrative. If so, it would be another indication that the spree has become, in some sense, about itself and the spectacle it has generated.

You could interpret last Friday morning's Virginia murder much in the same way. Police have yet to confirm that the shooting is related to the spree, but an attorney in Virginia's Prince William County was all over the news Thursday, announcing his intention to seek the death penalty for the sniper if he is caught in that state. Perhaps the shooter returned to Virginia to rise to the challenge.

In the meantime, there are quite a few popular melodramatic narratives making the rounds for the sniper to plug into. Among the unofficial "theories" in the air: Maybe the sniper is a Middle Eastern "terrorist" doing free-lance al Qaeda work. Maybe this is the work of an angry veteran of the American military. Maybe it's somebody driven mad by playing too many violent video games. Maybe it's a Serbian sniper hardened to shooting children. Maybe it's a disgruntled employee of Michael's, the crafts chain involved in two of the shootings. Maybe it's Joe Nut.

I overheard some Starbucks customers trading such theories the other day. They were outside, among the chained tables and chairs. They might have sat down more comfortably on nearby public benches, but they preferred to lean on the stacked furniture. It was as if they were trading comfort for a sense of the normal. The upturned chairs notwithstanding, that was their space, and they were going to use it.

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