Jewish World Review Oct. 29, 2002 / 23 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Mona Charen

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When racial profiling is uncontroversial |
The East Coast's two major dailies had difficulty coping with the surprise ending of the sniper story. They had become so wedded to the idea that the killer was a lone white gun nut that the reality of an African-American Muslim convert went down hard. In a headline that had been written the previous evening, The Washington Post reported, "Police Look for Former Soldier for Questioning in Sniper Case." Of all the known facts about John Muhammad -- that he was a failed businessman, twice-divorced father, Muslim convert with anti-American sentiments -- the Post chose to highlight only that he was a former soldier. Members of the military still seem a suspect class as far as Post headline writers are concerned.

The New York Times meanwhile informed readers that John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo were being investigated for ties to "skinhead militia groups." It's almost pathetic how badly some segments of establishment America want to believe that the only danger we face comes from white supremacists. In reality, Muhammad, one of the alleged snipers, is a member of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam.

The Post certainly deserves credit for reporting that the 1990 Chevy Caprice the pair had been driving was checked several times and its license plate researched as many as 10 times by police during the awful ordeal. It seemed to keep showing up in the neighborhood of the crimes. Yet though police questioned Muhammad on more than one occasion, they sent him on his way each time. "We were looking for a white van with white people," admitted D.C. police chief Charles Ramsay.

As someone who glanced uneasily at every white van in the vicinity for two weeks, I'm on record (not in print, but you can ask my friends) as doubting whether a white van was ever involved. It was never clear why the police were so stuck on this theory when none of their leads was really solid. The most important witness who claimed to have seen a "cream colored" van leaving the scene of the Falls Church murder turned out to be a liar.

Police constantly reminded us that eyewitness reports are dubious. Why then did they not take their own advice? This "profile" of the shooter as a white loner with an interest in guns wasn't based on anything. It was spun by dubious "experts" peddling theories for cable TV. There are no data showing that 95 percent of serial murderers are white. In fact, one of the most quoted profilers admitted that about 55 percent are. It's fine to have a hunch that the shooter is a crazed white guy, but to ignore other evidence on that basis can cost lives -- and arguably did in this case. Suppose the police had gotten it into their heads that a black guy was the likeliest suspect in the shootings and had let slip a blue car that kept showing up near the crime scenes because it was driven by whites? The outcry would have been overwhelming, and Chief Charles Moose of Montgomery County would be facing disgrace instead of hero status.

The matter of Muhammad's political/religious views has received scant attention -- no doubt out of fear of seeming anti-Muslim. But surely it is relevant that Muhammad chose the Nation of Islam; the most radical brand of Islam indigenous to America and the one led by an incendiary bigot named Farrakhan. As Daniel Pipes points out, the group's first leader, Elijah Muhammad, told members of the Nation of Islam "you are not American citizens."

Neither should we assume, as many analysts are now rushing to conclude, that Muhammad and Malvo had no ties to international terrorist groups. This is white van redux. Let's collect all the facts. JWR's Michael Ledeen asks how a man so reduced in circumstances that he was living in a shelter nonetheless seemed to have money (and false identity papers) for foreign travel. Muhammad was also reported to the FBI twice for suspected terrorist ties.

On the basis of information gleaned since his capture, it does not appear that Muhammad was in any way psychotic. He wasn't getting instructions from a dog, like Son of Sam. But we have learned that he and Malvo hated America and spoke approvingly of the September 11 terrorists.

The lesson of this episode is: keep an open mind. If you're looking only for a white van, the terror express could roar right by and you'd miss it.

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© 2001, Creators Syndicate