Head Shots

WITH THE ARREST of Gulf War veteran John Muhammad and his young accomplice John Malvo, the D.C. sniper case that filled the airwaves for three weeks has dwindled to a few roundtable wrap-ups, ending the biggest wave of serial killer hysteria since The Son of Sam. And while the news reporters seem grateful that the panic they helped foster is gone, there’s an odd nostalgia to their recaps, the skillful video montages bringing back the past three weeks with maybe too much loving attention to the shattered plate glass windows and yellow crime scene tape around the gas pumps. It’s as if they already miss those crazy days.

If it bleeds, it leads, runs the cliche of the media here, but few stories bleed for more than a day or two. A sensational trial, maybe, or a kidnapping, a hostage crisis, but most days there aren’t enough easily compelling topics to fill a front page or the first ten minutes of a newscast. In the slang of the business, war is sexy, but not foreign policy, and forget economics. And there has to be an element of compassion or care: a missing child is sexy where a plane crash isn’t.

For any bloody story to grip the public at large, the outcome has to be in doubt, and the stakes must be high. It helps if there’s a level of mystery involved, and a trail of forensic evidence to assess–just as in our favorite TV shows. The D.C. sniper case had all of those attributes, and operated long enough to get most of the country wondering about it. Add in a dose of post-9/11 terrorist paranoia (it’s D.C., after all), a threat against children and the challenges posed by the sniper’s methods and you’ve got a story that crosses all demographics.

Technically, the entire set-up was tantalizing. How good of a shot was this guy? For the millions of Americans trained in firearms, the question provided hours of discussion. The guy was good but not that good (we could have made these shots if we wanted to, where he missed several). He’d probably gotten some training in the military service, but we were sure marksmanship wasn’t his specialty (which finally turned out to be right).

And how did he get away so easily (since that was really the hardest part of the job–again, our vicarious familiarity with crime only feeding our interest)? Police released aerial photos of the crime scenes, showing how close they were to highway on-ramps. Smart, we thought. When police mentioned a possible accomplice, that made sense as well, a getaway driver.

Even more striking for a broad TV audience, the killings took place in normal, suburban surroundings, places like gas stations or strip malls you could find anywhere in America. While the idea is absurd, there was a feeling that this could happen to you–establishing a crucial, personal connection that local TV newscasts usually have to press hard to achieve (are there dangerous toxins in your own home? how does the new tax bill affect you?).

The satisfaction of a mystery is guessing the answers before the storyteller divulges its secrets. That element of almost but not quite knowing is pleasing, as are the jarring reversals that shake our faith in our solution. The not-knowing is as important as the knowing.

American TV’s coverage of the sniper case mimicked its weekly fictional detective series’ presentation of serial murders, but with the added urgency and gravity of reality. In recent years, primetime news magazine shows have taken real case after case like this and packaged them into one hour features, the format pointedly trying to keep the viewer guessing. Here was a more powerful version of that, an ongoing drama with an outcome in doubt. Naturally the news ran it first night after night and dedicated specials to panel discussions of experts analyzing the case. And naturally viewers tuned in to collect the newest evidence so their own guesses would be educated and up-to-date.

Now that the suspects are in custody and the police say the ballistics match, the drama is over. Now the questions are backward-looking, and not nearly as interesting. How? Why? The how is easily explained–the backseat of the car having been removed so the shooter could fire out of a hole in the trunk, the driver ready at the wheel to move them out of there once the shot was off. The why will take longer, since, according to authorities, neither of the men has talked about a motive. Speculation abounds about John Muhammad’s late switch to the Islamic faith (with its possible tie to terrorism), and the strange, controlling relationship between him and the much younger Malvo.

But those are topics for an hour-long show done in retrospect. The thrill of breaking news–of NOT knowing–is over, until the next sexy story.

Now the non-story begins, the slow-motion maneuvers of prosecutors from three different states and the District of Columbia as they decide where and how to try Muhammad and Malvo to ensure the death penalty for both suspects. D.C. doesn’t have the death penalty, so the trial won’t be there. Maryland, where the men were arrested, has the death penalty but has rarely used it (only 3 times since 1976–the first a “volunteer,” the other two African American men covicted of killing white victims), but state attorneys say they’ll most likely pursue it. If there’s a problem there, Virginia will be glad to oblige. Besides Texas, they’ve executed more prisoners than any state in the nation, killing 3 this year alone.

When the suspects are executed, it will be a moderately sexy story–for as much as a week before–but with no mystery attached and nothing personal at stake anymore, most people will tune out. They may watch the specials and remember the panic and the terror of the past three weeks but will feel no urgency. The D.C. sniper will be old news.

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