October 18, 2002

Made In America? Sniper Killings and Homegrown Terrorism

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Pacific News Service

The day after the FBI issued yet another terror alert, Kenneth H. Bridges, co-founder of a national Black self-help group, Matah, was gunned down at an Exxon gas station in northern Virginia. Even if Congress had given President Bush the billions of dollars and free-wheeling authority he demands for homeland security, it would likely not have made a difference for Bridges or the eight others murdered to date by a Maryland sniper.

Homegrown terrorism is a different animal.

In the past, those who shot up schools, shopping malls and neighborhood streets in serial or mass killings were likely to be white males who kill for thrills, personal revenge, to settle real or imagined grudges or for fringe political causes. Though the Maryland sniper’s race or nationality is not yet known, the case casts light on the terror of American violence from within.

The serial sniper is likely the latest in an American Rogues Gallery of homegrown terrorists who acted out their deadly personal or political hatreds and claimed hundreds of lives. In 1966, Charles Whitman climbed a tower at the University of Texas and gunned down 16 persons. In 1977, David Berkowitz killed six and wounded seven women in New York City. In the 1990s, there was Thomas Lee Dillon, who sniper-killed five in Ohio, ”Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, the Columbine High School shooters and right-wing bio-terrorists. Today, the anthrax killer remains unidentified.

Their victims were all also seemingly chosen at random.

Though these backyard terrorists usually act alone, there are countless others in local communities who nurse private or political hatreds and are fully able and willing to launch their own mass-killing sprees. Authorities fear copycat murders and implore TV stations to tone down their frequently sensationalist coverage of mass killers and appeal to Hollywood to stop making or delay release of films that glorify mass murder.

In the same Newsweek poll, women, Blacks and Latinos expressed more fear of the sniper than white males did. There’s a reason for their greater fear. They have been the prime victims of hate violence from individuals who kill from deranged rage or who belong to organized hate groups. In the 1990s, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimated that there were thousands of racist skinheads and members of the Order, Aryan Nation, the White Patriots Party, Nazi factions and the Klan. Borrowing generously from the terror methods of the old Klan, their members committed dozens of bombings, murders, and bank robberies to bring about their apocalyptic vision of a white, Christian America.

In 2001, according to the FBI, hate crimes leaped from the year before. As always, women, gays and minorities were the main victims, and they were almost always, as apparently is the case with the victims of the serial sniper, chosen at random. Their different sexual orientation, gender, religion, or race was enough to put them in harm’s way.

President Bush has said that he is sickened by the killings, and has labeled them “terrorizing.” Yet he and the FBI still obsessively fixate on the terror threat to America coming exclusively from Muslim, Arab or other foreign al Qaeda operatives. They refuse to admit that Americans can and do routinely maim and kill other Americans out of rage and hatred, paralyze entire cities with fear and panic and force federal and state agencies to cough up millions of dollars to hunt them down. This continuing blind spot toward our made-in-America terrorists feeds the public delusion that pulverizing towns in Afghanistan to stamp out the Taliban or occupying Iraq to dump Saddam Hussein will wipe away terror.

In the daily FBI updates the president receives on the case, the FBI should tell him that the killer is far more likely to be an ordinary citizen then a foreign-born terrorist. They should say that lax gun laws — Bush still adamantly rejects gun “fingerprinting” that might make it easier to trace the killer’s gun — and the widespread accessibility of high-powered weapons enable a homegrown terrorist to create his own arsenal of mass destruction. And, that police and local officials refuse to track and monitor — let alone racially profile — those who are prone to hate violence.

The sniper’s bullet that snuffed out the life of Bridges and eight other innocents is deadly proof that many Americans remain at grave risk from other Americans. FBI terror alerts and billions earmarked to protect them from foreign terrorists won’t change that.

Hutchinson (EHutchi344@aol.com) is the author of “The Crisis in Black and Black” (Middle Passage Press).

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