The Washington Sniper
After the great Wall Street collapse in October 1929 several major stock brokers came up with an ingenious idea to restore confidence. Captains of industry began a series of in-house meetings where it was rumoured grand schemes were being hatched to turn things around. At a time of panic, investors clutched at straws. The mere fact the meetings were taking place lifted share prices. However, it soon became clear that virtually nothing was being discussed. One wag dubbed them Wall Street's "no business, business meetings". Confidence went from bad to worse.
I recalled this while watching Montgomery County Police Chief, Charles Moose, at his media briefings over the elusive Washington snipers who played cat and mouse with everyone for more than three weeks. Armed with a long-range telescopic rifle they killed ten people randomly within a 100 mile radius of where I live in Washington. There was a palpable level of terror around a city that had been bracing itself since Nine Eleven for further al Qaeda attacks. People changed their daily routines because of the sniper. Some were reluctant to pump gas because three such people had been picked off. Those with outside jobs were scared. Many parents kept their children away from school after a thirteen-year old boy was shot at a Montgomery County school. Children were either locked into classrooms, or the whole school closed after the Richmond shootings.
Chief Moose enjoyed his weeks in the spotlight. He called news conferences at the drop of a hat. But he seldom had anything useful to report. Hungry for any titbit about the investigation, reporters became irritable with him, and he in turn with them; some cross-questioned him tersely. Why did the Police Chief set himself up in this way? The former Queensland Premier, Joh Bjelke-Peterson, used to label his press conferences "feeding the chooks". He contrived to have a few grains of corn for the barnyard. If supplies were short, he'd release a hare or two that would send the journos fluttering after what sometimes turned out to be nothing. This kept them busy, though eventually the tactic came back to haunt him. Moose is no student of history, politics or journalism. He convinced himself that it was reassuring merely to have the Police Chief parrying questions on screen, giving nothing away. But the "no news, news conferences" soon made people despondent. Several TV channels became vocal at the waste of time (and revenue) Moose inflicted upon them. Reporters began using irony to convey their frustration. On Sunday 20 October Moose appeared at a much heralded "news" conference, uttered three sentences, then turned on his heels and departed. One reporter said sarcastically to another that the conference was "packed with information"!
When it comes to news, Americans crave instant gratification. But it was never likely with the sniper inquiry. By cruising over such a wide area, the snipers involved seven different police jurisdictions, including two states and the District of Columbia. "Every different jurisdiction has its own little thing going on", one frustrated FBI agent complained. While Moose was designated the leading chief, the Federal Government became anxious about the slow progress. The Feds also got involved. Snooper planes hunted the sniper from above. Meantime, police cars sat at the ends of bridges, lights flashing. The occupants, sadly, were usually asleep, spoiling Moose's oft-repeated instruction that everyone must "stay alert". In the end, tips from the public, and a cryptic series of telephone exchanges between the sniper and authorities, resolved the crisis.
Throughout, there were more theories about what was happening than there were police chiefs. Talking-head psychologists endlessly advertised the limitations of their discipline. Others mulled the possibility that al Qaeda had hit upon the ultimate weapon to de-stabilise communities. That suggestion thankfully seems not to hold water. A few commentators got to the core of the problem: the all-too-ready availability of guns in America. More than 200 million of them, one for every man, woman and child! Last week a reporter went into a Pennsylvania gunshop where she was offered AK47s, M-16 assault rifles, sniper rifles, and a Thompson automatic weapon that shoots 32 rounds in less than 2.5 seconds. When she demurred, she was shown a couple of anti-aircraft guns! Not surprisingly, the snipers revived a debate over better gun control that is never far below the surface. One compromise under discussion was the creation of a ballistic imaging system to help the Police trace ammunition to the guns that fire them. But to be of any use, federal law would need amending so that gun sellers are obliged to retain records about weapons purchasers beyond 90 days. However, Congress has gone home for the elections, and that's never a time for talking gun control in this land, let alone more efficient policing. Now the offenders have been arraigned, those issues yet again will be swept under the carpet. On the stump, "no debate, debates" are the American way.
Michael Bassett is currently Fulbright Professor of New Zealand Studies at Georgetown University.