We know this about the sniper terrorizing Washington: He has shot 12 people, possibly 13, with a scoped .223 from ranges between 30 and 200 yards. We think the sniper is either one or two suburban men, that he (or they) drive a light-colored Ford Econovan and/or Chevy Astro van. We think that he-let’s call him that-has called authorities with as-yet-unknown demands. He may be Al Qaeda, though the evidence is weak. All of this, and more, is thought , but what is known? Really only this: Our killer likes a rifle with a scope.
The view through the scope is the center not only of the sniper’s life, but of the life we’re sharing with him now. The scope provides an organizing image, the circle and crosshairs. The killer puts the crosshairs on the head of James D. Martin (or Sarah Ramos, or Dean Harold Meyers, or Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, or Kenneth Bridges, or Pascal Charlot, or any of the dead) and accomplishes his task. Cops and agents cull their lists of angry rifle owners who also own or lease a Chevy Astro, hoping to put the crosshairs of the law on the man responsible. And we, too, viewing helplessly, cannot help but think our thoughts and spin our theories. The Al Qaeda theory first burst into the media on Oct. 3, when the sniper coolly shot five people in five different places in less than two hours. Shortly after this, a joint federal and Montgomery County task force was assembled-including, notably, agents of the U.S. Secret Service.
I spent seven years in law enforcement and had the pleasure (mostly pleasure) of working with the Secret Service. Last summer I published a novel called Big If , which is, in part, about the cult and culture of Protection, of how it feels to work a string of dull events for years, seeing nothing but imagining the worst. This is probably how it feels right now, pumping gas or buying groceries in Maryland. A novel is, of course, a bit like a sniper’s scope. It’s one life, brought up close. It’s a moment in that life. I show you a man vacuuming his car. Now watch as I make something happen to him. This metaphor itself-novel equals scope-is just one more example of the organizing view. But we know that thought, theories, novels, metaphors won’t save us, so we put our hopes in the authorities.
The Secret Service is a natural player on the Montgomery County task force, certainly. As the bodyguarding arm of the U.S. government, the Service spends a lot of time thinking about shooting through a scope. One organization within the agency, the Protective Intelligence Division, computer-models snipers as a tactical and pathological phenomenon, hoping to predict and thereby prevent. Another group, the Counter-Sniper Team, trains to kill them from a distance when computer models fail. P.I.D. and C.S.T., like much of America’s impressive protectocracy, are headquartered in Beltsville, Md., a sprawling and secure complex not listed on road maps of the area.
The location was selected in large part for its proximity by highway to the center of D.C., the White House and the Capitol. This, again, makes perfect bureaucratic sense. The Service exists to protect the state’s symbolic center, the President, who physically exists in downtown Washington. This recurring pattern of design-rings around a center-gives structure to the Service’s thinking about snipers, shooters, bombers, terrorists and threats. The Service in its manuals refers to the details enforcing “zones of security” around the protectees, sometimes more neurotically known as “sanitized zones.” (The metaphor is explicit: Danger equals weakness equals sickness equals germs.) The Service also calls this its “360 philosophy,” meaning all-surrounding, with no holes. This is what they think about in Beltsville.
Washington has two 360’s, actually. The first, as I’ve said, is not on any map. The second dominates the map-indeed, defines it as the circle defines the view through a scope, or the rings of a target define a bull’s-eye. This other 360 is called the Beltway, a.k.a. Interstate 495. It doesn’t start anywhere, being circular, but it passes through or near all the major bedroom towns: Suitland, Seat Pleasant, Beltsville itself (which is named for the Beltway). Past Beltsville is Wheaton, Md., where James D. Martin lived until Oct. 2, and the Rockville Pike where James (Sonny) Buchanan Jr., the next victim, died on Oct. 3, and the Mobil gas station where Premkumar Walekar was shot 30 minutes later, and a park bench near the Leisure World where the nanny and house-cleaner Sarah Ramos had stopped to take a little rest.
It’s not accidental that the 13 or 14 attacks (as of this writing: one miss, three wounded and nine dead or possibly 10 ) group around the major roads. The killer thinks ahead. Highways mean escape into commuter anonymity. It’s not accidental, but it’s eerie that it’s happening in, of all places, metro Washington. Other murderers with messages for us (Mohammed Atta, Timothy McVeigh, Sirhan Sirhan, Lee Harvey Oswald) chose to attack a public center of some kind: the tallest towers in New York, the Pentagon, the White House, Presidents or candidates for President. The size- the centrality -of the target seemed to approximate the “importance” of the message being sent.
In the course of writing this, I’ve been grieving for Sarah Ramos and the rest. And I’ve been wondering about circles, centers and crosshairs. We have a lot invested in our concept of the center as a target we can intelligently defend against the world. Most of my friends in fed-dom spend your money and their time making cases, building strategies, flying off to Riyadh for secret interviews, or staying home and issuing subpoenas. I’m thinking of one woman in particular, civilian F.B.I.- talented, committed, well-liked by coworkers , I’m sure her last performance evaluation said. Her office, a sub-unit of a unit of a unit somewhere else, comes up with guidelines to protect large Rocky Mountain dams from terrorist attacks. This woman had a new house she’s fixing up, grown children and a husband-a normal life, except for the madness on her desk. Her name is Linda Franklin. Last week, she went to a Home Depot in Falls Church, Va., and was shot once at a distance of about 100 yards.
Linda Franklin, Sarah Ramos-shot through the same scope. If you ask a Secret Service sniper about shooting through a scope, he (and I’ve never seen a woman in that job) will tell you several things. First, that it’s an art, not a science. As such, it requires all the modes of human art-reckoning and wisdom and experience. It isn’t science, though there’s science in it, because a bullet aimed at X, the bull’s-eye of the crosshairs, will drop due to gravity-perhaps an inch or two over this particular killer’s customary range, depending on the weapon and the round. There’s windage and the kick, which yanks the muzzle up, and a Zen-like (and death-like) relaxation of no-breathing-yet-no-holding-breath in the moment that you squeeze the trigger. Most importantly, perhaps, there is the need to zero-out , as the snipers call it. A new scope or new rifle will have a little drift, a micronic misalignment of barrel, sights and telescopic lens. You learn the scope, or mate the rifle to it, by firing test rounds. A little high and to the right-you remember and adjust the scope or aim. Even so, with all the variables, the one thing you know is that the bullet will not hit where the scope says it will hit.
In a sense, this drift of zero-out is what we’re living with, in living with the sniper in D.C. Want to send a message to the nation about power, about terror? Don’t shoot the President. Don’t murder famous buildings. Just get up on a ridge above the Rockville exit. Sarah Ramos will be coming along soon.
Mark Costello’s novel Big If (W.W. Norton) has been nominated for the National Book Award.