26 July 2011

The Blurry Face of Terrorism

It was a pristine Indian summer day in October 2002 when I cheerfully entered my apartment, home for the day from classes.  A junior English major at the University of Maryland, I had secured part-time employment at a small publishing house in suburban DC the year before.  The early Fall day held such promise that I decided to skip work in favour sophomoric adventure.  It turned out my boss wasn't even expecting me.  To my horror, on that very day, in the very neighborhood - indeed on the very same crossroad - a crazed sniper had mercilessly executed five completely innocent and unsuspecting victims.  

For the next three weeks, DC and its surrounding suburbs were gripped in paranoiac panic.  Despite the most zealous of law enforcement efforts, the sniper continued picking off people, targeting those performing the most common daily tasks -- motorists refueling, shoppers walking back to their parked cars, kids waiting for the school bus.  Suddenly we were all terrifyingly vulnerable.  In the immediate aftermath, FBI profilers were called in.  There was a consensus:  this had to be a white guy, possibly ex-military.  It made perfect sense.  Hell, even his van was white! 

Three weeks and fifteen shootings later, we finally realized how wrong we all were, and how gravely our misconceptions had misdirected us.  It wasn't a crazed white guy at all, but a splenetic Black man and his easily influenced Black teenage step-son.  Purposefully targeting all races and backgrounds to obscure their true aim, to eventually murder an ex-wife who had denied visitation rights without being suspected. They had turned their blue Chevy Caprice into a perfect killing machine.  They used GPS to elude roadblocks.  Not they needed to, of course, the focus was squarely obsessed with white box vans.

I rehash this unfortunate period in history in light of the recent attacks in Norway.  I found striking that each mention of the perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik, included a physical description, "blonde-haired, blue-eyed."  Although unspoken, the implication bore that the horror of those campers on Utoya Island was compounded by the fact that their killer looked like a "normal" guy.  As if being blonde-haired and blue-eyed automatically precluded a person from being a murderous psychopath.

Of course, this notion is absurd.  After all, the Nazis would uphold Breivik's physical features as the prototype for an Aryan über race, and serial killer Ted Bundy was renowned for his charming airs.  We have this conception of a killer, of a terrorist, of a mass-murderer, and yet these conceptions are proven to be misguided and false time and again.  You think extremist Muslims were the first suicide bombers?  How about Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II?  Everyone expected al-Qaeda or their ilk to be behind the Norway attacks; bizarrely enough, it turned out to be one of their own, a born and bred Norwegian killing his fellow Norwegians.

No one group holds the rights to murderous maniacal psychopaths.  In this unfortunate way, we are all equal. The surprise is we continue to be surprised.


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  2. In human nature, people are not first to blame themselves or their own. We expect the "others" to be the perpetrators when, like you said, we are all equal. What types of things in life would we like, tolerate, and defend if it had to be ours? Great post, as always!

  3. Well Katya, I think it may be more complicated than that. We get used to an idea: terrorists are Muslim, crazed gunmen are white, drug users are minorities, etc. And it becomes very difficult to break out of that certitude. But you're right, humans instinctively view the Other as dangerous and strange.

    Thanks for your comments.