Riddles of Disarmament: Saddam and the Washington Sniper
Issue #63, April 2003
These are strange times for philosophies of disarmament in the United States. A resolution passed by Congress will pave the way for the "disarming" of Iraq, with the United States playing its police card role in the Middle East. President George W. Bush has elevated the concept of disarmament to the level of state dogma. International conflict has been personalized: Saddam has become the criminal before the interrogation. As Congress was paving the way for war in the Middle East, two snipers were working in the more affluent suburbs of Washington. They were productive: ten dead, and sixteen casualties in all.
The snipers received extensive coverage. Terror is the most highly valued currency: it is golden in the exchange system called the 'war on terror.' NBC Morning News provides media space to the spectral murderers, then moves on to a State Department warning with global reach: all Americans are to be "vigilant" for their safety after Al Qaeda threats (October 11, 2002). There is no similar warning about the sniper — he is one of us, John Muhammad, a Gulf war veteran, with his protégé John Lee Malvo in tow. The snipers and Saddam are presented as mutually exclusive objects of terror, occupying different areas of the American psyche. But their semiotic resonance with Americans makes their differences artificial. Ultimately, their symbolic worth fits the same equation — terror.
Their tactics are different: in the American imagination the oriental despot prides himself on hiding his purported crimes — here accumulating weapons of mass destruction. The news constantly reverberates with the ruses of the orientalized bandit: Saddam cannot be trusted, he hides, he conceals, he flees. In Bush's State of the Union address, "The dictator of Iraq is not disarming ... he is deceiving." By contrast, the Washington snipers prided themselves on revealing their crimes: death at the petrol pump and shopping trolley — death inflicted while conducting banal activities.
This duality of terror between Saddam, the snipers and disarmament has yet to be examined. It is ironic; it is vicious. In the seat of power, Congress and Bush deliberate on overthrowing a foreign leader who is labelled, packaged and marked for distribution as an armed "terrorist", an "enemy of freedom". The language of the congressional resolution on Iraq is that of an arrest warrant, with the intent to "disarm" Saddam. The language of the State of the Union address on January 28, 2003 was similar, reiterating the common theme that, if the UN did not disarm Saddam, then Saddam would have to "disarm" himself. Yet in Washington, and indeed most American states, citizens are armed to the teeth and have no desire of being disarmed. Weapons are stockpiled in the land of freedom; gun laws are not enforced.
The mythic relationship that both "terrorists" share with American society is powerful. Saddam was armed as an anti-fundamentalist deterrent with Washington cash reserves, with his technologies for mass destruction a predictable by-product. The main Washington sniper comes from a landscape mushroomed with militia and dilettante gun specialists. The sniper status has been extolled above and beyond the realm of a mere activity: it is a station, the mark of dignity. Within this new secular church of guns, there are apparently apostates: the Washington sniper is one of them. Noam Chandler, a former marine lieutenant colonel, described to the New York Times a sniper aesthetic, and the Washington sniper does not met the grade, a "bad shot", probably civilian. He is a "fringe puppy, a sniper wannabe." Another, a director of a sniper-training centre at Elk Garden, West Virginia, absolves the gun-state of responsibility: "This guy is not a sniper." Washington residents seem to accept this: there has been no increase in gun sales, but there is no need. Arms sales were blossoming even before the murders. The experts can only admire: the sniper wishes no harm to his victims according to criminologist James A. Fox of Northeastern University, only "terror." He is an equal opportunity killer, the great leveller of death.
Other theories about the sniper flowered. "I picture him as a 25-year-old to 45-year-old gun enthusiast type," suggested a person the LA Times named Caroline. "The sort of fellow that would hang out at gun shows" (Oct 15, 2002). For a tourist from Arkansas, Jim Boyer, the sniper was a "terrorist"; for court reporter Harlyn Bloom, "a nut that's a sharpshooter" (LA Times, Oct 15, 2002). Vicious bacilli, an infection from the outside — not one of 'us.' The sniper was merely a rupture in the domestic idyll of Virginian life: everything around was peaceful. Novelist Jonathan Kellerman described this Edenic tranquillity punctured by the nightmare from the outside: "This is the essence of fear: You are weeding the lawn, walking your beautiful child to school, strolling with your recalcitrant dog, filling your car up with gas. It's a day like any other until the shot rings out, and someone who was here a second ago isn't" (LA Times, Oct 15, 2002). The gun and weapons culture take their place alongside the obstinate canine and the green-fingered suburban resident. Only Kellerman prefers to exorcise it from the vision. The sniper is aberrant; the gun is aberrant. So Kellerman weds the fantasies of the sniper with the visions of terrorism, although Osama bin Laden occupies the wedding bed, not Saddam: "The Washington-area sniper would have merited plenty of newsprint and TV time in any age, but in the post-Sept. 11 era, his crimes have acquired additional emotional valence."
The language of 9-11 is wide-ranging and available in any social comparison of terror: residents in Virginia habitually reached for the inclusive word of 'terrorist.' "They're terrorists," came the thesis of grocer Vartz Ozbenian working in Virginia. "It seems like they're very smart. If it were just one crazy man, he'd do something wrong. He'd kill too many people in one day, and he'd get caught. But these people are good at their killing." American popular culture invites the murderer into various niches. As Megan K. Stack of the LA Times observed, "In an age punctuated by the macabre drama of killing sprees, murderers take their place in popular culture as almost allegorical figures, incarnations of various strains of American fear." (Oct 15, 2002) But the snipers are denied the ultimate beatification: the mark of true Americans, equipped by the habits of the gun culture. The snipers cannot share in the patriotic zest or an organic connection with the social body they terrorized.
Saddam offers another exercise of denial. Iraq's leader was the Machiavellian operator the West had entertained for decades. Saddam becomes a statesman in the eyes of American foreign policy during the 1980s, and a bandit in the 1990s. Either way, he was feted, kept like preservative in a bottle, to be unleashed against Islamic fundamentalism. It is thus curious to find weapons of mass destruction as the bone of contention with the leader from Baghdad: there are few criticisms by Washington of other regimes specializing in smallpox and other vicious contaminants. There is no discussion that much of Saddam's arsenal has the imprint of 'made in America' on it.
Then there are the issues of American-made weapons of mass destruction being deployed against Americans. Anthrax miraculously disappeared as a point of discussion in domestic American politics, where it dominated for several weeks as people feared opening envelopes or packages. An attempt was made to suggest that the anthrax attacks in the US had a tenuous line to Baghdad, a line that dissolved as soon as it was drawn. One such article noting this was Peter J. Boyer in the New Yorker: "Early analyses suggested that Iraq could be the source of the anthrax." (Nov 12, 2001) Now the anthrax problem has again been exported. Journalist Wyatt Andrews of CBS was puzzled: where had "the weapons Iraq got caught holding in the '90s, the enriched uranium, the VX nerve gas, the weaponized anthrax" disappeared? (CBS Morning News, Dec 9, 2002). Again a problem of disarmament, where American weapons, from guns to anthrax, exist freely in for anyone with a bulging bank balance. In the Middle East, Saddam is unable to possess this American soma, which in the 1980s was easily obtainable on the international supermarket of chemical agents. In Virginia, John Muhammed may freely seek his murderous weapons along his fellow countrymen, but few would deny the vicissitudes of the gun state. Saddam, once offered exile by Mr. Rumsfeld, knows where to re-arm.
An attribute common to both Saddam and the snipers lies in that in neither case is America considered responsible for them. Shiva Naipaul's highly integrated work on the origins and what might have inspired Jim Jones' People's Temple offers an apt parallel. In Journey to Nowhere (1982), Naipaul finds fundamentalism rampant, especially on the Western seaboard, where Berkeley adds a sophisticated lustre to the gatherings of Buckminster Fuller, alternative movements, fads. None are responsible for the fundamentalist mass-suicide finale that transpired in the Guyana jungle. There were condemnations, accusations, a rapid washing of hands.
The White House, Congress and Baghdad made a pact in the blood of both Iranian and Iraqi soldiers, then effaced the agreement of memory. The gun-state, the National Rifle Association lobby, and an alleged right to bear arms constitute a pact that spilled the blood of casualties who stood over cars and at petrol stations. But no one is guilty except the very few — the snipers and Saddam. They both become singular and isolated, one domestically ("crazed") and the other internationally ("fanatic"). Worst of all, they are both rendered gratuitous in a conceptual framework that has no cause and effect. Society is not responsible, gun cultures are not responsible: in short, political cultures are not responsible. There is only the dreadful binary: the sinful "them" and the well-washed, purified "us." John Muhammad, another of Walt Whitman's athletes of freedom, the other side of the Timothy McVeigh coin, becomes merely another "extremist" who served in the Gulf and turned freedom's project on itself, arbitrary and beyond the interrogation of society. The Gulf bears its poisoned legacy, its contaminated soldiers, its carcinogenic tactics (uranium depleted shells being the evident culprit), its oil, its McVeighs and John Muhammads. But Washington wants more.
There is only one solution to the arms question, and it is not in America. It is Iraq. In the cost-benefit analysis, the Bush administration finds solutions ready-made in overseas theatres, bringing the disarmament argument full circle. Weapons of mass destruction, with its American representatives at Fort Dietrich in Maryland, are less important than a petty dictator in the Middle East. Anthrax spores rampant in the land of freedom are less dangerous than similar weapons in the hands of a secular dictator. Having a war is far easier that solving domestic riddles, gun control being among the more complex issues. Another message of the purified rings out from the Bush administration today as Colin Powell — a revivified Teddy Roosevelt — delivers his address to the United Nations: peace is not worth half the gains of war.
Binoy Kampmark is a Hampton Scholar at St. John's College, University of Queensland.