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a crack shot blows holes in the mythologies of forensics, police, and ourselves

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, October 16, 2002.

In the late 1880’s, Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes to the world in a short story called A Study in Scarlet. It was received politely, did moderately well, vanished. Then, in 1888, Jack the Ripper scared the living feces out of London and the same world. When Doyle offered up the next story, about a brilliant investigator who not only saves the day but does so with strict reliance on truth and his own competence, the public went ape. With Sherlock, the Ripper had no chance. As I said, Anno 1888.

Anno 2002, we have a sniper in Virginia. Maybe several. We don’t know, although if the forensic reports are correct, the same weapon was used in most of them. This person commits murder with the same weapon in the same vehicle in crowded areas in public. He has killed ten people. They have no idea who he is, why he does it, where he’ll kill again. He could as easily have killed that state police officer standing one hundred feet from his ninth victim.

All the police have been able to put together is that most witnesses say that a white Ford van is always seen in the area after the shots are fired, although there are so many such vehicles it might be just the sort of attention getting movement that catches the most eyes. After all, in any suburban shopping mall there is probably a white Ford van exiting your field of vision at most moments.

It will be extremely embarrassing if the white van clue, so called, proves false. We ought to know now that the average person is pretty useless as an eyewitness. Here we have witnesses who cannot aid in a police sketch from the last shooting. However, they are sure that the weapon was an AK-47 and the arm that held it was olive skinned. This by observation under stress and bad lighting at distance at night. The skin was possibly foreign and the weapon certainly so. It’s just so falling together!

It may all be true, but experience suggests that the truth will prove to be less convenient.

The military is quick to go for the photo op and good press by offering spy planes to cover the area. They themselves cannot find four five hundred pound bombs in Colorado nor the A-10 Thunderbird that crashed by Vail but they can find the correct auto out of tens of thousands. What are they going to do, look for the infra red flash of a gunshot in a sea of light? A white van?

We are drowning in television and movies about how high tech is remaking the police world and how the guilty are doomed and the innocent soon to be free by DNA and all the forensic work. Yet here, in real life, we have a killer who cannot be identified, who apparently follows a certain consistency in a specific way and the real life authorities are baffled but still unwilling to violate their own mythologies of supreme competence.

Having helicopters and planes overhead (and way overhead to avoid complaints and to scan the widest possible area) is no more effective than having National Guard at the airports. Makes the old ladies feel safer, but we all know they couldn’t have stopped or even slowed down the September 11 suicide murderers. I sincerely doubt that the sniper will be caught from the sky.

The sniper chose his locations well, perhaps. Lots of small police forces, none noted for particular savvy, all unable to cooperate fully even if they wanted to. And if the sniper set out to make the police and public officials look like posturing incompetents, he’s succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. They have after – what? – ten shootings apparently nothing whatever.

Trace this story. If they catch him, it will be because he does something dumb. Recall, they don’t always catch serial killers, the Zodiac murderer being only one. Given the chance, though, they will kill him rather than catch him, even if he tries to surrender, or at least force a confession out of him in a manner that precludes a trial, because nobody wants to have a showcase in which the accused details the predictable incompetencies of the police. The FBI, after everyone forgets they played no role beyond providing one victim, will claim their labs somehow led to the killer. There will be loud huzzahs to how terrific the public safety officials did their job.

The basic job of the police and the judicial system is to keep the peace and calm the public, even lying to them to achieve that result. That’s probably how it has happened through the ages, and only gets really dangerous when the police and DAs start believing their own myths. It is probably our surety about how tenuous law enforcement and public safety and their mutual exclusions are that drives us to these fictional hugs that someone will take care of us in the end. This sniper shows just how fragile our mythology is, and how dangerous to believe deliberate fictions.

Yes, Sherlock, I figured that out on my own.