Is John Allen Muhammad the Great Uniter?

Illustration by Bill Koeb

A month ago, when the killing spree began, my partner and I bided our time with a time-honored American tradition—tasteless humor. Riffing off a rerun of Seinfeld, we each tried to come up with a name for the killer. “‘The sniper’ has no poetry to it,” I lamented. Unfortunately, we came up with nothing that rang like “the Boston Strangler” or “Jack the Ripper”; we settled on the “Beltway Bucker.” For the Ebonically challenged, “buck” is hiphop speech for “shoot.” It seemed natural that we turned to our own language to put a name on the terror, but we never imagined that the terror was native to us.

When the visage of John Allen Muhammad appeared across the country, black America’s collective blood pressure jumped. As has been thoroughly reported, the general perception, among blacks and whites alike, was that any guy who would so coldly and precisely pick off random targets and disappear without a trace had to be white.

We should have known better than to trust our racial hunches. To paraphrase Charles Barkley, we live in a world where the best rapper is white, the best tennis player is black, and the best golfer can’t decide. We celebrate all of this as evidence of our move from a nation of separates to a society of one. We attribute it to Dr. King’s dream of a world where a black person can be a chemist and a white person can be a blues singer, a society beyond stereotyping.

For years we have celebrated black firsts, have knocked down doors and reaffirmed our faith in Horatio Algerism. But sooner or later, the doorways would have to open into more ignoble places—such as being a famous mass-murder suspect.

And the racial serial-killer barrier was always more about perception than reality. Last week, the New York Times reported that anywhere between 13 percent and 22 percent of serial killers are black. According to the Times, the rogues’ gallery includes Wayne Williams, the infamous Atlanta Child Murderer, who terrorized that city in the early ’80s; Henry Louis Wallace, who killed several black women in Charlotte, N.C., in the early ’90s; and Cleophus Prince Jr., who murdered six San Diego white women, also in the ’90s. And yet there was still a set view that the sniper was white. “Everyone was looking for the white car with white people,” a police official would later tell The Washington Post.

Black America has its own special attachment to the idea that serial killing is a white crime. It originates in the deeply held belief that white people are crazy. Faced with Eminem, for instance, and his raving hatred of his own mother, a common response among black people is: “Oh, that’s some white shit.” Social critics agonize over the fact that things such as reading, studying, and listening to opera are referred to as “white” by black people. But so are things such as sitting stiffly in church, letting your kids talk back to you, slam-dancing, suicide, devil worship, anorexia, and serial killing.

African-Americans may have internalized some ugly stereotypes about our intellect. But where common sense rules, we believe ourselves to be king. We may not be the most learned, but we love our mothers and we raise respectful kids. We can’t tell you much about opera, but damn if we can’t tap our feet in time with a beat. If the SAT measured folk wisdom, we’d clog the gates of Caltech, leaving white people to complain about biased testing.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t people in our communities who we believe can’t add two and two. But we reserve other technical nomenclature, besides “crazy,” for these people. Professional football player Rae Carruth, for instance, who paid someone to kill his girlfriend and then hid in the trunk of a car, isn’t so much crazy as he is a damn fool. Craziness is reserved for white people, or, in the past, black people with the nerve to challenge white people. Malcolm X was considered crazy. But so are less-notables such as Colin Ferguson and Mark Essex—men who really were crazy and decided to shoot down random white people.

The belief in white psychosis is as old as African-Americans. Whites often called Africa a land of cannibals, but many African slaves thought that their white captors were taking them off to be eaten. During slavery, serial killing may not have been common, but serial rape certainly was. In the Jim Crow era, the average black person considering the phenomenon of lynching—a civic ritual that somehow managed to incorporate children, picnic baskets, and castration—might easily have concluded that whites were touched in the head. Serial murder is a high form of evil that requires derangement to a degree that only someone who would enslave, rape, kill and pillage is capable of. For years, in the mythology of black America, there was only one group capable of such things.

But today, it’s getting a lot harder for African-Americans to put a face on evil. What do we make of Sept. 11—and the fact that the aggressors made no distinction between blacks, whites, Muslims, Christians, and Jews when plotting their atrocity? There was no sense, among most African-Americans, that “white” America was being punished in the Sept. 11 attacks. If anything, this was an atrocity visited on the most international city in the world. Similarly, the sniper proved to be an equal-opportunity killer.

Muhammad, the accused sniper, surely must rank as something more than a “damn fool.” This is an era where lynching has been eradicated, a group of Arabs bombed the World Trade Center, God knows who decided to mail out anthrax, and a black man is charged with being the sniper. We can’t hide from insanity behind racial borders. We still have our problems with white America, but they aren’t any crazier than the rest of us. Just a little weirder. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Bill Koeb.