WASHINGTON, D.C. — I was walking back to my room in Alexandria, Va., after a wedding Saturday night, wondering idly if the sniper might do my students a favor by shooting me. I would have been an easy target, especially in front of the hotel.
Instead, he elected to bag some poor fellow coming out of a Ponderosa restaurant about the same time. That’s assuming this wasn’t a copycat shooting; frankly, it would be surprising if our latest folk antihero didn’t inspire imitators.
But since he had the bad taste to spare me, let’s note a couple significant things about our society that the sniper phenomenon illustrates, and which the mainstream media are ignoring.
First of all, the police might be a lot closer to catching the killer if we had a national ballistics database that would enable them to trace his weapon. Rifles have a distinctive “fingerprint” they leave on shell casings. Keeping records of them would be no harder than keeping human fingerprint records, especially in the age of computers.
Yet Congress repeatedly has declined to create one, and isn’t about to, even now. Why? Simply, because the National Rifle Association and its allies are determined to prevent it. The gun nuts not only don’t want any restriction on personal weapons of mass destruction; they don’t even want the government to be able to find out who has them.
To be fair, that isn’t because they root for psychos like the sniper. It’s because many of them actually think they might someday have to fight a guerrilla war against their own government to defend freedom. Others fear that a “communistic” government might, if it had a list of who owned guns, decide to take their weapons away.
We let this paranoia get in the way of law enforcement for two reasons: Money and power. Because the NRA has so much money and is so good at lobbying, it virtually always gets its way.
Worse, the sane and the decent have essentially given up even trying to move the elephant. Long ago, most “practical” politicians quietly accepted that any kind of meaningful gun control is impossible, and so they don’t even try.
The situation, as a matter of fact, is exactly the same as it was with civil rights for many years, right down to the early 1960s. Liberals and moderates everywhere hated the fact that millions of blacks were lynched, humiliated and not even treated as citizens across the South. This was extremely effective political propaganda for our enemies abroad. But good people were resigned to accepting that nothing ever could change, that the federal government could never do anything meaningful about this, because the racists had, with seniority and filibuster, an iron grip on the U.S. Senate.
Well, guess what? It did change, thanks to three factors. One was the brilliance and sheer courage of a group of mostly young people, most of whom were black, who took on the system on buses and at lunch counters, often paying a terrible price.
President Lyndon Johnson, a former Southern senator who fortunately became, as president, a traitor to his class, was instrumental in securing the legal foundation to make African-Americans full citizens, for the first time ever.
But the final factor in overcoming legalized racism was not human at all, but a glowing glass tube in our homes: television. It is one thing to read about women and children being sprayed with fire hoses and attacked by police dogs. Seeing it is quite another thing, which the bad guys never realized until much too late.
Today, television is our whole reality. TV doesn’t merely transmit what is going on, it is our national culture.
Yes, the intellectual and managerial classes still read the best newspapers, and we all increasingly play on the Internet. But nothing really matters until and unless it’s on TV.
That, almost certainly, is why some poor slob in Virginia pretended to have seen the sniper last week, and made up details consistent with what he had heard on TV. For him, the highest meaning his name and life could possibly have was to be validated by being mentioned on television. Though Matthew Dowdy now has been exposed as a fraud, and will almost certainly go to jail, I’m not sure he’s even remorseful. After all, he is now ... somebody on television! For a few days anyway, his name and face are appearing on the same glass screen with such gods as Saddam Hussein and Susan Lucci.
That may be worth martyrdom, to him, and you can bet the sniper himself is the most avid consumer of sniper news. Forty years ago, a few far-seeing television correspondents and producers skillfully — and without violating any ethical tenet of journalism — used what was happening in Alabama and Mississippi to focus national attention on the major social problem facing our nation.
What if we were to do that, now? What if television journalists were to ask prominent congressmen and lobbyists why we have to give any nut with a high-powered rifle the ability to hold the nation at bay for weeks? These are weeks during which we are moving toward a major war (remember?) in which the sniper’s final death toll, whatever that is, is apt to be eclipsed in about three seconds.
Going from Iraq to a hard place: Much of the November issue of Atlantic Monthly is devoted to a well-written weighing of what now seems our inevitable war. Bottom line: We need to be prepared for a costly occupation that will last years. In the words of Robert Kaplan, “The real question is not whether the American military can topple Saddam’s regime, but whether (we) have the stomach for imperial involvement of a kind we have not known since the United States occupied Germany and Japan.”Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org