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Psychopath or Terrorist, Sniper Lusts for Power

Don't let the serial killer win; go on with daily life.

October 15, 2002|Jonathan Kellerman | Jonathan Kellerman is a novelist and psychologist. His newly published novel is "The Murder Book" (Ballantine Books).

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.

The next day, you may venture out. Or, you may listen to the pounding of your heart and leave the lawn unweeded / keep your child home / permit the dog his panting indolence / allow the gas gauge needle to veer toward empty. The Washington-area sniper knows this well, and he's grinning ear to ear. Because whether his murders shake out as the work of an apolitical psychopath or as part of a post-Sept. 11 terror plan, they're based on one primary motive: power lust.

Serial killing is a crime of sadistic domination. Most often, it's sexually mediated domination, but sometimes the sexual kink is camouflaged by polemics. Witness the Unabomber's attempt to justify his crimes as ecological heroism -- a farce accepted all too easily by some naive environmentalists. A cursory reading of Theodore Kaczynski's ramblings reveal him to have been a classic loser, unable to form normal human relationships, who was motivated by the sheer, vicious joy of killing.

Political terrorism appears, at first glance, to spring from a different set of psychosocial circumstances. But a close examination of terrorism reveals more than a bit of similarity to garden-variety serial homicide.

Osama bin Laden and his ilk believe themselves aggrieved by Western culture. This is nothing new. Political and religious tensions are a given in a heterogeneous world. But most aggrieved parties don't resort to the murder of innocents misrepresented as martyrdom to achieve their ends. In fact, terrorist tactics have been relatively ineffective in achieving large-scale political change as the world continues to be molded by formalized warfare and diplomacy. As armies and bureaucrats prevail, self-immolating lunatics are shunted to obscurity.

And yet, they keep trying.

One must look past the rhetoric, then, and examine terrorist fantasies to understand what strapping on an explosives belt and pulling the little white strings really means. The recruiters of Hamas and other groups know what it means. They ply impressionable, disenfranchised young people with visions of Paradise Awaiting. Sacrifice yourself for the Cause and you will inherit a nirvanic afterlife complete with virgins on demand. This is sexual imagery at its ripest, and it works.

The terrorist tutors never strap on bomb belts themselves, however. Like the Washington sniper, they remain safe and concealed, orchestrating murder from afar. Because the cold heart of terrorism isn't fueled by self-determination or liberation. Its rhythm is nourished by calculated hatred and a thirst for power, by the opportunity to experience a titanic sense of control, however passing.

That level of gratification is habit-forming. So the bombs keep exploding, and the sniper keeps firing. Sniping is well established as a terrorist method. Much media attention has been paid to the bloody work of Palestinian suicide bombers but very little has been cast upon another, simultaneous tactic employed by the same terrorist organizations that choreograph intifadas: sniper shootings -- the most infamous example being that of an infant girl sighted in a Palestinian rifleman's cross hairs and shot in the head.

The primacy of suicide bombing over sniping as a topic of news coverage stems from the fact that successful bombings kill, maim and traumatize large groups of victims in one swoop, whereas sniper shootings tend to pick off one or two innocents at a time. One becomes a big story, the other is dismissed as ho-hum Mideast violence. But that's true only when the sniping occurs 10,000 miles away. When the victims live in Virginia, it's a very big story, indeed.

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. Because we Americans now know that the world isn't nearly as friendly as we deluded ourselves into believing. The anthrax murders reinforced that attitude adjustment and the sniper has nurtured it further. Armies and diplomats may mold nations but bad guys lurking in the shadows maim our consciousness and threaten to deform our daily lives.

Whether the sniper turns out to be a homegrown demon or a minion of the elusive Bin Laden matters little. He boils with hatred and power lust but is smart enough to keep all that in check until he returns home to gloat. Until he is caught, he will continue to ply his malignant trade because it makes him feel important. If we stop weeding the lawn, he will have won. If we obsess about him, he will have won. If, on the other hand, we pursue him without elevating him to mythic proportions while venturing out bravely and living our humdrum lives -- much as everyday Israelis struggle to live theirs -- we will, ultimately, rob him of his pleasure.

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