For the past several weeks, the sniper stalking the Washington D.C. suburbs has riveted the nation’s attention. Robert Jackall, Class of 1956 professor of Sociology and Social Thought, has studied the procedures of the New York City Transit Police and the New York City district attorney’s office since 1991. His insight into criminal behavior offers a perspective on the sniper killings.
According to Jackall, the sniper killings do not fit the typical pattern of a serial killer. “What makes this case different, why it may not be a [serial killer] at work, is that typically most serial killings occur over a long period of time, with periods between killings, sometimes days, sometimes weeks, months or years,” he said. “Also, most serial murderers receive sexual gratification in some way from the homicide. It seems the very randomness of the attack, the variety and diversity of victims, the very distance of the killings themselves violates most of the normal rules that the profilers down at the FBI and the police department associate with serial killers.”
Accordingly, investigators have had to adjust their thinking to include alternatives to the theory that the sniper attacks are the work of a deranged serial killer. Jackall said that it’s possible “that the guy is a terrorist, possibly from the American right. But increasingly, some of the key analysts are beginning to ask whether this might not be part of a larger pattern of another kind of terrorism such as we’ve experienced a great deal of in the last several years.”
Jackall pointed to FBI visits within the past several days to Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. detention facility in Cuba for captured al-Qaida and Taliban fighters, as evidence that investigators are actively looking into possible terrorist connections to the killings. This is certainly a departure from earlier prevailing attitudes within the law enforcement community.
“The early indications of the possibility of the killings being possibly terrorism related were immediately discounted, including by many of my friends in the police department, who argued that this is out and out just another criminal case,” Jackall said. “But now, starting a few days ago, there have been a series of terrorism warnings, and now people are starting to think about such a possibility.”
An Islamic extremist terrorist has been implicated before in shootings on American soil. On Jan. 25, 1993, Mir Amal Kansi shot and killed two CIA employees outside the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Va. The Pakistani was subsequently tracked down and arrested by FBI agents after he fled to his native country. He was subsequently tried, convicted and sentenced to death in federal court. Coincidentally, his execution is scheduled for next month.
Jackall sees a very real possibility that the sniper killings might indeed be the work of a terrorist organization. “I personally think that more than one person is involved in this, which makes it a very unusual case in the serial killing category,” he said. “If it’s more than one person, then you’re down to an extremely narrow percentage of serial killers. There’ve only been a couple of serial killer cases in all that we know about in which there’ve been more than one person. Therefore, that would increase the likelihood that the killings have a larger terrorist purpose.”
Regardless of the identity of the killer or killers, the murders have sparked a media frenzy, which has descended on the capital and its suburbs. Jackall thinks location plays at least a partial role in the massive coverage of the killings and the significance attached to them.
“The fact that these killings are taking place in D.C. makes it a natural for international media attention, because it goes right to the heart of the legitimacy of the government,” he said. “If the government can’t keep people safe, then how are a civil society and a democratic political order possible? That’s why unbelievable resources have been poured into this investigation.”
These resources, under the leadership of Montgomery County, Md., Police Chief Charles Moose, include local police, FBI agents and now military spy planes to survey the areas in which the sniper has been operating. Jackall said there may be a price to pay for the involvement of so many players in the investigation.
“The more layers of law enforcement that enter a case, the more complicated the command structure becomes,” he said. “After a while, the issue of who’s in charge and who is responsible for an area of investigation becomes very cloudy. I’ve seen this happen, and police get extremely upset in general when issues of lines of authority get blurred. . .. Cops that I’ve talked to about this feel that there are an awful lot of resources down there, and sooner of later, people are going to start tripping over one another.”
Additionally, Jackall said the investigation, which so has been as competent as possible given the enormous pressure investigators are operating under, has inevitably been plagued by leaks of key information to members of the media. One such example is the tarot card, with the words “Dear Police: I am God” scrawled on it, discovered near one of the murder sites. The press has since had a field day speculating about the significance of the card.
“One of the cardinal rules of criminal investigation is to keep some aspect of the investigation out of the hands of the media so that you can use it to falsify false witnesses, false confessions and dead-end theories that the cops themselves conjure up,” Jackall said. “In really important cases, the cops try to be close-mouthed, but there are always trade-offs cops can make with people in the media, given the fact that their own personal fame and personal publicity are important coins of the realm in their world, so they want to be the ones to give news to the media, because they might end up being a featured player. So far, it looks like we know everything the cops know.”
The bottom line, though, regardless of the motivations of the sniper or snipers, and the difficulties inherent in a large-scale investigation, is that investigators cannot afford to allow the killings to go unsolved, or to continue for much longer, according to Jackall.
“There are police officers, FBI agents and now the U.S. military working on this case,” he said. “It’s been given resources which are simply fantastic precisely because of its high profile nature. This is what is called a ‘high-profile crime,’ and it has to be solved. It can’t not be solved and they have to find out what’s behind this, because people are terrified.”