October 16, 2002

– Is Al Qaeda shooting up Washington?

Monomania is the chief characteristic of most madmen, and so it is with those who are clamoring for war. By monomania I mean a fixation, or obsession, that colors perceptions and makes normal interaction with the world difficult, if not well nigh impossible. Your typical monomaniac might be, say, an anti-Semite, who interprets virtually all events as the doings of a Jewish cabal, that, naturally, is all-powerful and omnipresent. Or the monomaniac might be a sex addict, who has eroticized everyday reality (or tried to) and sees the world through the prism of a disorienting hyper-sexuality. In both cases, reality, if it is perceived at all, hardly penetrates the monomaniacal consciousness. This form of mental illness is rife, today, as a direct result of 9/11. The psychological trauma has knocked many Americans for a loop, and is even beginning to penetrate the political discourse in this country, as witness the loopy monomania of the War Party over the matter of the Washington sniper.

With James S.Robbins of National Review around, we don't really need the FBI, and could probably dispense with it altogether – because he has already solved the case. "I think the sniper is either an active member of al Qaeda, a bin Laden sympathizer, or someone motivated by the same type of hatred," Robbins announces. His reasons are textbook examples of the monomanical mentality.

While admitting that his thesis is at variance with everything law enforcement and the experts have been telling us, Robbins airily dismisses their accumulated experience and inside information by declaring that the classic profile of the "lone nut" doesn't apply here: "This profile makes sense if you look only at historical patterns of recent domestic terrorism." But Robbins knows better:

"My working assumption from day one was that these attacks were a new domestic front of the war against civilization by the Islamicist terrorists, hence part of a larger framework conditioned by critical strategic factors. In other words, these are not the actions of a criminal psychopath, but a jihadist warrior."

Of course, we all have "working assumptions" and couldn't function without them. But these assumptions are usually the result of experience, i.e. based on concrete evidence, and ought not to be easily made. The monomaniac, however, starts out with more than mere assumptions: he knows what it's all about before he even sees it. Thus his perceptions are completely off-base, and untrustworthy. What evidence does Robbins have that the Washington sniper is an Al-Qaeda agent? According to him, it's all in the timing:

"First, the sniper attacks are taking place during an al Qaeda offensive. The latest statements purportedly from Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Mullah Omar, and, of course, several from Osama bin Laden, indicated that a new phase was underway. The recent attacks in Yemen, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Chechnya, the Philippines, and most devastatingly in Indonesia, are parts of this offensive. So, why not attack the U.S. homeland? Clearly, they have been looking for ways to strike back at us since the failure of their follow on attacks after September 11. This may be it. Remember that we are at war. Seems a salient fact when systematic shooting erupts on the home front."

Yes, the sniper attacks are taking place during a period of heightened Al Qaeda activity abroad. But so have many other violent events: the city of Oakland, in California, is experiencing a wave of shootings. Could it be Al-Qaeda? By the Robbins standard of evidence, the answer is yes. What about the five murders of military spouses at Ft. Bragg, Georgia, inside of five weeks? These, after all, were Special Operations officers, just recently returned from Afghanistan: could they have converted to Al Qaeda-ism while over there, and decided to wage jihad on their return? If we take Robbins seriously – I know it's hard, but try – then this possibility cannot be entirely ruled out. After all, wouldn't it make sense for the terrorists to strike a military target?

To the monomaniac, there are no coincidences: everything is part of a pattern. And there are signs and portents everywhere. If you start out with certain "working assumptions" that have hardened into wishful thinking, then everything begins to fall nicely into place….

"Second, the attacks are taking place in the nation's capital region. If the bad guys were going to target any particular U.S. city, Washington D.C. would be the place. It is the seat of American power, and the symbol of everything they hate. A sniper on the loose in Washington, killing Americans and not being caught, raises the morale of terrorists everywhere, and emboldens them to greater efforts. If they can hit us here, they can hit us anywhere, and if one of them is succeeding they will all keep trying."

With Washington not only the seat of the federal government, but also the murder capital of the country, one can only wonder what Robbins has to say about that particular statistic. If D.C. is the symbol of everything the terrorists hate, that city also looms large in the demonology of the American far-right. Given the mystic significance of place posited by Robbins, another Timothy McVeigh seems just as likely to be the culprit.

As for the recent murders being a morale-booster for the terorists: what more do they need than the memory of 9/11 to remind themselves that "they can hit us anywhere"? Many recent events gladden the terrorist heart, but can we really blame them for such disasters as the recent stock market slide, the California forest fires, and the new Madonna movie?

Robbins, undeterred by either logic or common sense, is off to the races:

"Third, the attacks are against innocents. Al Qaeda has threatened retribution for civilians killed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian Authority. They have specifically stated that they would take revenge for the killing of women and children, who are among the victims in the recent spate of attacks in this country, including the latest."

But most of the victims of urban violence everywhere are innocents. Children are killed or injured in drive-by shootings in our inner cities with stunning frequency, and some studies show that this condition has developed into a form of guerrilla warfare. All urban dwellers, to some degree, live with a certain level of terror, due to the ubiquity of crime in the cities. But what has any of this to do with Al Qaeda? The answer is absolutely nothing….

"Fourth, the tactics are terroristic in nature," writes Robbins. "The attacks, in their targeting, their frequency, and their location, are intended to spread fear and disrupt the normal flow of life." It's interesting how the monomaniacal mentality seems to imbue its victims with special powers: Robbins is here reading the sniper's mind, although how he has managed this feat when the police have yet to find the killer is a phenomenon that defies explanation. But not to the monomaniac. He knows his mania gives him special insight into the inner workings of the world, a preternatural vision that penetrates right to the heart of any matter, like Superman's x-ray vision.

The reality is that we can't know anything about the inner mental world of the sniper, and won't know until he's caught, and not even Robbins pretends otherwise. He admits that he's engaging in sheer speculation – "but that is what analysts do," he assures us. But that is not what responsible analysts, otherwise known as journalists, do. It is, however, what progandists do. A major theme of war propaganda is to project the possibilities of the terror that might be unleashed if we don't act now. How long before they think to tie the phantom sniper to Saddam Hussein? It may be only a matter of hours….

The prime piece of evidence so far, the tarot card left by the killer at a crime scene, is a "a wild card," avers Robbins – this is said about the only concrete physical clue so far! As if such an un-Islamic calling card could possibly be connected with the devoutly religious fanatics of Al Qaeda, and as if tarot cards and Satanic imagery have never been associated with any murders in the U.S.! The willful blindness of the ideologue is virtually impenetrable, and certainly in the case of our neoconservative warhawks this capacity for evasion seems truly Orwellian, a form of double-think.

Robbins, in any case, is excited by the news that the police are looking for an "olive-skinned" man, although what he has against Sicilians he doesn't say. Elsewhere in National Review, Michael Ledeen is channeling the spirit of James Jesus Angleton for evidence that it's all a plot by Al Qaeda, and here we get auditory and visual hallucinations in addition to the familiar symptoms. The former professional bridge player who toured with Omar Sharif even manages to work in a plug for his new book, and his analysis of the sniper murders is an echo of its thesis:

"It could be anything from a lone nut – always Americans' favorite hypothesis when something terrible happens – to an organized terrorist cell. Americans don't like to face the possibility of an active conspiracy, even though there are lots of them at work in the country…"

Ledeen is so right – there are indeed lots of conspiracies at work in this country, but every time I point one out I get called a "crank" by James Tarantoad and Jonah Goldberg. Speaking of whom, with his well-known investigative skills, NRO Online editor Goldberg also weighs in:

"I'm with Jim in thinking this is part of the Fall offensive, along with the attacks in Kuwait and off the coast of Yemen. Obviously, we won't know for sure. But what I find most persuasive is the possibility that this is a two man team. That just strikes me as way too professional."

Already the sniper has morphed into two, and the plot – based on pure supposition – gets more complex. Soon the landscape of suburban Washington will be teeming with olive-skinned gun-toting Abdullahs, scooting around the countryside in their white vans – at least, in Goldberg's imagination. Ah, and here is the real breakthrough in the case, the clincher, as far as I'm concerned:

"Also, the syntax on the 'Dear Mr. Policeman' note was weird (though sacriligious). [sic] Also, and this, I think, might be a bit of a stretch, but the fact that so many victims are people pumping gas sounds like it might be symbolic. All of these al Quaeda [sic] types make such a big deal about our foreign policy being a product of our thirst for oil to feed our cars. Maybe that means something. Or maybe, it's just that gas purchasers make easier targets. Anyway, it's getting pretty bad around here."

It sure is – and "a bit of a stretch" is putting it mildly. It isn't always possible to tell when Goldberg is trying to be serious. The knowledge that he missed his true calling, and should be up there on stage, a Seinfeld of the Right, has taken its toll on his column. It is often impossible to know if he's trying to make a statement or just telling a bad (and very long) joke. In the case of the piercing insight cited above, I leave it to my readers to decide. What strikes me is that now we have one of the leading lights of the neocon Right saying "it's all about oil!" As if to underscore the point that all monomaniacs, whether of the Right or the Left, are brothers under the skin….

It is certainly possible that what we are witnessing is a terror attack by Al Qaeda. As it stands now, there is not a single shred of solid evidence pointing in that direction. My point, however, is that monomaniacs jump to conclusions far too easily, and that's usually because they have their own agendas.

– Justin Raimondo

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.