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Trauma to Drama: The Sniper Saga

Anniversaries are candy to the media's insatiable appetite for content. Five years, 10 years, whatever--if it was a big story once before, it can be one again, or so we're constantly told. So, five years after the D.C. snipers terrorized everyone who lives within a couple of hours drive of Washington, they're back, Muhammad and Malvo, just the guys you never wanted to see again.

Now comes a new documentary on BET, airing Wednesday night at 10 on the cable network's "American Gangster" series, and while the program is effective at recreating the fear and the panic, the cluelessness of the investigation and the ease with which the killers spread their terror, there is no new information here. Beneath the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire sound effects and the rapid-cut editing used to splice together old news clips, what's new about this film is mainly its focus on Muhammad and Malvo's race, on the idea that serial killers are generally white, but these guys were not. Yet there's nothing here about why their being black is of any particular relevance to who they were or what they did--mainly because there's no evidence that race played much of a role in their murder spree. So we have a show built around an irrelevance.

Yet it's strangely comforting to see interviews with former D.C. police chief Charles Ramsey, former Montgomery County police chief Charles Moose, and a bunch of the federal agents who worked the sniper case. These talking heads, who were our hopes and our connections to scant information during those terrifying days, seem calmer and more frank now. Moose still has little of value to say--he's unnecessarily defensive and less than forthcoming about the points at which the sniper probe went off track--but Ramsey comes off as having really thought about the sniper case and what it meant.

"We couldn't have been any further off," Ramsey says about how the investigation focused on the wrong vehicle and the wrong description of the shooters. He puts the snipers in the context of 9/11 and the anthrax scare and yet, he avoids the tendency we all have to ascribe meaning to the meaningless: "I don't think anyone ever fully understands what goes on in the human mind," he says.

Along those lines, CNN the other day brought us new video of a laughing, taunting John Muhammad, direct from Death Row. "I guess you all thought I was finished," the creep says, and he emits a series of forced, demonic chuckles before he goes on to ask, bizarrely, for help in understanding his relationship with Lee Malvo.

The result is inevitable: Because detail almost always humanizes, Malvo comes off as a wayward, emotionally needy child who fell under the sway of the manipulative, crazed Muhammad. But of course, we've heard this tale many times before, in the original reporting on the case, at the trials, and in the effort by Malvo's defense to swing public opinion his way.

On CNN, we hear from Muhammad's ex-wife Mildred and his son, John Jr., but they have little new to offer. Muhammad was a weird and bad guy. This we knew.

The CNN piece checked back with the social worker who has seen Malvo for many hours since his arrest and conviction, with the law enforcement agents who tracked the snipers during those weeks of terror in 2002, and the families of both killers. The upshot: Not much.

The most fascinating lingering piece of the sniper story is one that both the BET and CNN programs dance around, but never directly address: The failure of the investigation to make sense of persistent reports identifying Muhammad's blue Caprice at the killing scenes. The investigators interviewed on both programs are frank and honest about the fact that the evidence was there, but law enforcement didn't connect the dots. The program I'd like to see would take a deep look at why that failure occurred, what mechanisms, both human and computerized, could be developed to better discern which information is relevant, and how, if at all, investigative approaches have evolved as a result of the sniper experience.

Instead, we get more of the same old stuff rehashing the pain and the terror. The distinction between old news and history is that history is a rigorous attempt to draw meaning from the past and to impose order on it with an eye toward understanding ourselves and our future. Old news is fun, nostalgic, even enlightening in some ways. But it isn't history, and history requires more than just talking to the players of the past; it requires doing the reporting, building hypotheses, testing them, and staking out a position and defending it. That would make for a worthy look back at that scary season five years ago.

By Marc Fisher |  October 23, 2007; 7:14 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

That video on CNN makes me sick.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | October 23, 2007 8:30 AM

The hypocracy that is exhibited at BET knows no bounds. The first majority black owned cable network continues to glorify violence in order to sell advertising time for a show called "American Gangster" profiling the coward John Allen Muhammad.

CNN on the other hand has no shame. They are the digital pimp of the 21st century along with FOX News, MSNBC, and all the 24 hour news channels. They will all shamelessly exploit anything to get people to watch their tired programming.

Thankfully my television comes with a off switch so I can chose not to watch this drivel. So does yours. Vote with your remotes and don't watch this garbage. If there are no viewers to watch there are no advertisers to pay for such programs.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 23, 2007 8:42 AM

I think "American Gangster" is a movie about the guy who was head of the Blackstone Rangers in Chicago.

Posted by: Stick | October 23, 2007 11:32 AM

I stopped reading Marc after he started censoring my comments. This article was unusually cogent, at least for Marc. But I am not posting regarding the article, but about a comment. Aggressive racism characterizes many of Marc's readers; I have accused him in the past of being a race baiter. However, BET is owned by Viacom. It was sold several years ago; Bob Johnson has moved onto hotels and, evidently, hedge funds. So you can no longer blame BET on blacks -- we just work here.

Posted by: RL | October 23, 2007 12:03 PM

BET is no longer Black Owned. It is another channel in the Viacom/MTV package, with more of an overt Black appeal. The level of effort in the product will speak for itself, just like many of the other programs on the channel. Have not seen this one, but the other American gangster stories have been decent television.

Posted by: RobGreg | October 23, 2007 1:07 PM

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