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P.C. timidity in sniper case may have cost lives

November 5, 2002

So police came across the sniper suspects at least 11 times during the long manhunt, but let them go every time. The D.C. police chief acknowledged that race was a factor in this amazing failure. “Everybody was looking for a white car with white people,” he told The Washington Post.Writing on his Web site, Andrew Sullivan said this was racial profiling. If a white killer had been let go 11 times because cops were looking for a black man, he asked, “Wouldn’t this be the basis for uproar? Wouldn’t the cops involved be fired? Wouldn’t there be a massive investigation …?” Yes, and the press would have erupted in high dudgeon.

Why were police looking for a white man? The usual response is that, statistically, most serial killers are white. But that excuse would never be accepted if police had announced they were looking for black suspects simply because statistics on black crime are high.

Besides, statistical evidence about the high percentage of white snipers and serial killers is quite shaky. Whites are about three-quarters of the U.S. population but account for just over half of sniper killings, said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, reporting on statistics for 1976-2000. Eric Hickey, a criminal psychology professor at California State University-Fresno, says there are plenty of minority serial killers — blacks account for about 13 percent of the U.S. population and 22 percent of serial killers.

Despite these numbers, the “angry white male” theory seemed to spread everywhere, mostly because it reflected attitudes of its media spreaders. Reporters were even ready with experts willing to explain why the sniper or snipers were white: “White males belong to a long-advantaged group that is now having to share power and control,” said criminologist Jack Levin.

“Most reporters and editors wanted the sniper to be a white male,” columnist John O’Sullivan wrote. Why? Because of the typical newsroom assumption “that the great American majority that never went to the Ivy League schools is made up of racists, sexists and homophobes …”

We have been down this road before. The Atlanta child murders were a big story, but the press dropped it quickly when the killer turned out to be black. The church burnings hoax followed the same pattern — a big story when arsonists were assumed to be white racists, an instant media departure when they turned out to be black.

The Unabomber was a disappointment — white, but (alas) a killer from the far left. But the press rallied with let’s-understand-the-Unabomber stories, pointing out that he had the courage of his convictions and was not out for personal gain (a press courtesy not extended to anti-abortion killers). In contrast, the Oklahoma City bombing was a pure pressroom delight: a white, right-wing bomber who could be tied to the anti-government “climate” represented by Newt Gingrich and other conservatives.

This time around, reporters peered through the conventional media prisms, blaming the murders on the lack of gun control, the evil effects of military training and a “sniper subculture.” Even after Muhammad and Malvo were identified, The New York Times said authorities were exploring their possible connection to “skinhead militias.” (This was deleted after the early editions of Oct. 24, perhaps when some alert Times editor figured out that black men are not likely to join skinhead groups.)

The press has seemed quite reluctant to pursue the Muslim angle, too, underplaying Muhammad’s Farrakhan connection and his resentment about America’s treatment of the world’s Muslims. Police seemed to avoid announcing clues that the killers might be black or Muslim. “Mr. Policeman,” on the tarot card, and “Mr. Police,” on the letter, are thought to be Jamaican expressions. “Word is Bond” and the five stars were references to hip-hop music influenced by a black cultural group spun off from the Black Muslims: the Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths.

In this group, black males are gods, black women are earths. The snipers said, “I am God” at least twice (on the Tarot card and to the Catholic priest), so presumably it must have occurred to somebody in Washington law enforcement that this might be a Five Percenter catchphrase and not just a delusional outburst. But no one in law enforcement was willing to say, Watch out for a black suspect or suspects.

There was no early mention of a possible Jamaican immigrant either. The NewsMax Web site noted that police didn’t tell the public to watch for foreigners or recent immigrants, possibly because “that might have violated P.C. rules.” Yes. Fear of political incorrectness spun the press in the wrong direction, impeded law enforcement, and may have cost the lives of a few sniper victims. The P.C. sensibility amuses a lot of people, but here it was no joke.

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