Position Statements

Race, Reason and the Sniper Case
Dr. Maulana Karenga
Professor, Department of Black Studies
California State University, Long Beach
2002 October 27

The arrest of two African Americans as primary suspects in the sniper killings which terrorized the Washington area for three weeks has caused a number of mixed emotions in the African American community. Certainly, African Americans share the relief, even joy, of feeling that this particular episode of brutal and random killing is apparently over. They mourn the horrible deaths and injuries to innocents and rejoice that if these suspects are the snipers, no one else will be killed and that they can hopefully walk in the world without immobilizing fear. People can now go back to work, school, play, pumping gas, shopping, boarding a bus, walking in the park, and jogging without becoming a victim of a sniper who seemed to kill without cause, conscience or consideration for age, sex, race or class. But African Americans also feel a sense of unease. For they know that they live in a country where the racialization of crime and the criminalization of race is not simply a historical reality, but an ongoing practice and problem. And they are understandably apprehensive about the possible misuse of race and reason to racialize the incident and argue its meaning in racially negative terms.
In such a racialized context, some African Americans feel a tinge of social shame that the suspected snipers are Black. Schooled in the practice of collective racial indictment of peoples of color, they feel this somehow reflects on all Black people, even though only two Black persons are suspected of the killings. On the other hand, whites do not, in any significant numbers, exhibit or express racial shame for the long and deadly list of serial killers with whom they share racial identities, i.e., Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacey, et al. Moreover, even when there is a clear ethnic and racial make up of Italian, Israeli and Russian mafias, no one indicts the entire Italian, Jewish or Russian communities for this or suggests that this represents an ethnic or racial defect rather than a social and national problem. Nevertheless, such characterization is familiar practice with African American gangs. And thus, African Americans are rightfully concerned how this incident will be racialized and played out in the courts and in society. It is this kind of concern that seems to be operative in the decision of the NAACP to issue a statement on the incident stating "mad men, like bigots, come in all colors." But again, there was and is no need for such a racial disclaimer and it is not a prevalent or prized practice of whites.
Also, some African American Muslims are greatly concerned about the possible negative impact of the identification of the primary suspect, John Muhammad, as a Muslim. They are painfully aware of the double burden of a devalued race and demonized religion in this racialized country and in these turbulent and terror-focused times. Thus, they tend to feel they too must come forth and engage in a required ritual of denial, disassociation and denunciation in order to absolve themselves and Islam in the eyes of the dominant white society. But Muslims have no more obligation to bear collective guilt and publicly declare collective innocence than white Jews have concerning serial killer David Berkowitz or white Christians have concerning serial killer John Wayne Gacey. And only a racialized reasoning about religion, morality and human failure would suggest or require this. It is an irony of history that a people who have suffered so much from the collective violence of society - both official and mob - should find themselves anxious over how this particular incident of violence will be racially interpreted in academic, political, judicial and other settings.
There is also among African Americans, even though in minor form, the recurrent conspiracy theories, a series of interlocking suspicions that this whole thing is constructed to justify rightist suppression and violence at home and war abroad. Some see a suspicious rush to judgment, a preemptive determination of guilt reminiscent of the recently brought to light wrongful conviction of the African American teenagers railroaded in the Central Park jogger case. Others with more fertile imaginations support a Manchurian candidate scenario of governmental mind control of the two suspects and question how could two who seemed so coldly efficient before end up being found unalert and sleeping at a public rest stop with no one standing guard. All oppressed people tend to have both unhealthy and healthy suspicions; a history of oppression and suppression cultivates and insures both. What one tries to do in such a situation is to remain rational in spite of the concrete reasons one has to distrust and disbelieve the established order.
Nevertheless, African Americans, like everyone else, are trying to make sense out of a senseless situation, trying to reason out these irrational and grossly immoral acts. And they are trying to do it without the burden or the blurring and even blinding effect of racialized interpretations. To do this, they must put the incident in a social context rather than a racial one. If one does this, one can see that ideas and acts do not drop from the sky, but emerge from and develop in a given social context. Even though we are morally compelled to criticize, condemn and hold persons responsible for their wrongful acts, we can never forget or factor out the social context in which these persons understand and assert themselves.
Certainly society has a right and responsibility to restrain, judge and punish this and other such forms of violence and to restore the balance and well-being of the moral and social order threatened by such disruptive and destructive acts. But it also has the responsibility to constantly question itself and ask itself how has its historical and current practices contributed to creating conditions favorable or unfavorable to such mindless and merciless violence? Perhaps, this tragedy offers us a unique opportunity to raise a series of self-reflective questions about the causes and course of violence in society. First among these might be, has U.S. society fostered a culture of violence in which things like these are clinically understandable though obviously morally inexcusable? We don't like to think deeply about the holocausts against the Native Americans and Africans in U.S. history, the violent oppression and dispossession of Latinos and Asians, but these processes greatly shaped U.S. society and its self-understanding. Indeed, the ruling race-class took it as its "manifest destiny" and the duty of power to impose its will on the world and people it encountered. And there are those who continue to talk and act as if might makes right and as if killing is the definitive cure and solution to all their problems - from domestic crime to real and imagined international challenges and threats.
In this context, what does it mean to the psyche of the country for the President to call for the assassination of leaders of other countries, to launch a war to settle family and corporate scores outside national and international judicial structures and to argue that right to preemptive strikes - even nuclear ones - against anyone deemed a threat or challenge? What does it mean for us to raise our children on murderous video games where killing and dismembering are the only ways to win and be successful? And how do we address the role of the media in creating spectacles out of violence, playing up its passion for the rawest and most bloody aspects of reality, fueling fear with continuous coverage and a pageantry and parade of profilers and security experts speculating on everything from possible next targets, nationality and religious affiliation to motivation and levels of madness?
Furthermore, let us ask ourselves have we not also in this creation and sustaining of a culture of violence, also shown in this way and others an often callous and continuous disregard for human life? Are the million dollar suits and settlements against excessive and wrongful police violence any indication that even those assigned to protect life too often take it and must be reigned in and rehabilitated? And are we not more prone to spend trillions for corporate inspired war and war materials than billions for education, housing and health care? Of course we call this call to kill nice names like pre-emptive self-defense, wars against "terrorism" and even the war for the protection and survival of Judeo-Christian "civilization". But in truth, how does this differ from war to perpetuate white domination in the world, to protect oil or some other corporate interests, to suppress liberation movements and support brutal client states and to deny the people of the world a right to live their lives in freedom, dignity and decency which we claim and demand for ourselves?
Have we become dulled and dismissive of any deaths but our own? Is this why we call our deaths at the hands of others tragic and unacceptable, but the killing of other people unfortunate collateral damage? And is this why we condemn group terrorism against us and our allies, but allow and encourage state terrorism against others, i.e., official assassinations and bombings, tank shellings and missile attacks against civilian centers?
Are the lives of the children, women and men of Palestine, Afghanistan, Kurdistan and Iraq less valuable than our own, our allies and our client states? Shall we practice a self-focused and selective morality in which white life and liberty are more valuable than the life and liberty of peoples of color? Or do we uphold the ancient moral principle first advanced in the ancient African culture of Egypt that all human life is sacred and that every human is a bearer of dignity and divinity?
Finally, we might ask ourselves, is it wise to teach men and women to hate and kill an officially designed enemy, have them do it or simulate it repeatedly and then bring them back without adequate deconditioning, counseling and support for readjustment in "normal" society? Now that we have two Black suspects, the picture first painted of an anonymous skilled marksman and strategic planner has been revised and we are given a racialized downgraded version. But in spite of these post facto attempts, the primary suspect was trained to be violent and devalue the life of the other, gained a skill in killing, and if he is the sniper, obviously has severe mental problems. Given this process and the resultant possibility of social blowback, it is of value to ask how many others are out there homeless, hostile and unhinged and waiting in the wings for that revealed or provoked hour of action? And how many other juveniles, alienated and vulnerable like this one is suspected of being, will find themselves susceptible accomplices to the deviant and destructive acts of adults for various emotional and contextual reasons?
In the wake of the horrific series of school killings by white students in the late 90's, the President asked the nation to think about and study why these children turned to this extreme form of violence and to be sensitive to their assumed internal suffering. No doubt a similar request will not be made for the juvenile, John Malvo, in this case for obvious racial and political reasons. Already there is a pre-emptive call for an official killing termed capital punishment of both the adult and juvenile suspects and an official tug-of-war over who will get to kill them. It is the kind of quick and accessible solution the country has become accustomed to. Never mind the moral questions it raises or the lessons it offers our children on the centrality of violence in solving social and personal problems. It is the early man morality of an eye-for-an-eye, which, if we do not change, and Martin Luther King via Mahatma Gandhi reminds us, will eventually leave everybody blind - if of course, they don't all kill each other first. It goes without saying, there is another way. The question is will we commit enough effort to finding and following it. Since the sniping, there has been tragic and senseless killing of professors at the University of Arizona. And the President is on TV talking "wild wild west" talk about shooting first and talking later about Iraq. He is lambasting the UN and even his European allies for not wanting war and seeking a solution that will save Iraqi, American and other lives, avoid massive destabilization of the region and bring the world closer to the promised peace we all want and deserve. In such a context, the rising anti-war movement offers us a chance not only to oppose an unjust war abroad, but also to create a larger and ongoing dialog about the role violence plays in the calculus of our national and international conduct and our need to pose and pursue another paradigm of human relations, society and the world.

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