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Back and To The Left

Adventures with the Beltway Sniper. By Charlie Skelton and Paul Carr in Washington D.C.

15 October 2002

Lolling about on our Holiday Inn beds, trying not to go blind from boredom in this, the most boring city in the world, we have been watching a lot of American TV. And there's one particular phrase that's been leaping out of the screen. Well, two phrases. The first is 'common side-effects include nausea, giddiness and diarrhea' (which seems to be tagged onto every advertisement from indigestion tablets to advanced wok systems).
Sniper DOs and DON'Ts

DO NOT: Walk around wearing a 'Target Breast Cancer' T-Shirt.

DO: Draw cross hairs on your head, arms and shopping bags with a felt-tip pen to confuse nearby marksmen.

DO NOT: Ask directions from anyone driving a white Ford Van with a ladder rack.

DO: Ensure that you are not the tallest person in any location.

DO NOT: Stand very still in garage forecourts.

DO: Duck and Roll.

DO NOT: Say things like "For Christ's sake, why is everyone so edgy? The odds of the sniper being in this area are infi....".

DO: Leave this godforsaken, rainy, deserted, white stone obsessed hell-hole of a city and move to the West Coast.

The second is 'links to Al-Quaeda'. 'Links to Al-Quaeda' is the catchphrase of the day. Everything that's even slightly bad has 'links to Al-Quaeda'. Ingrown toenails? Links to Al-Quaeda. A bicycle crashes into a hedge? Links to Al-Quaeda.

It's been reported recently that a significant percentage of the American public thinks that Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden are the same person: and this is hardly surprising given the frightening way that the TV news media blurs definitions and bandies terms around.

Everything bad forms part of the 'axis of evil' which is threatening the freedom of the United States. And the Washington sniper is the latest recruit. Pat Buchanan, former presidential candidate, speaking on MSNBC, spelled it out: "I don't want to call this guy a sniper - I want to call him a terrorist". The Washington shootings are 'terrorism'. They are part of the reason why Bush is going to war on Iraq. To 'stop this sort of thing'.

Similarly, here's what Douglas Raybeck, professor of anthropology at Hamilton College, has to say:

'While this sniper may have nothing to do with Islamic extremists, he is playing upon similar fears and upon a context of significant unease. His acts are terrifying: he is a terrorist.'

So he's a terrorist, and there's a teeny-tiny possibility that he might not be an Islamic extremist. But he probably is. And even if he isn't, he's most likely shooting people as a kind of tribute to Al-Quaeda: 'It seems probable that the future will reveal other discontented individuals seeking publicity and notoriety and, worse still, other extremist organizations who view the success of al-Quaeda as worthy of emulation.'

And in the latest grim twist to events, the ninth victim - Linda Franklin - was an FBI analyst, so everything becomes even more confused, the police have approached the US military for help in finding the sniper, and US spy planes are being deployed to try and catch the assailant. Suddenly, the US is at war with a nutcase. Everything is blurred, everything is confused, and as the networks remind us, thirty-eight times a minute, it's 'Countdown: Iraq.'

This is one terrifying city to be in right now. Terrifying, but still incredibly dull.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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