Few speak up for sniper suspects during latest terror

October 30, 2002|By Gregory Kane

THE PROBLEM with this country is that people or things are never around when you really need them. Where, for example, are those danged "root-causers" in the wake of the recent sniper terror?

We can't find them. A year ago at this time, we could find them and we couldn't shut them up. No sooner had the World Trade Center twin towers collapsed after being jet-bombed by Arab terrorists than the root-causers took to the nation's airwaves and newspaper pages.

"We have to consider the root cause of why these people hate us," the root-causers snootily chided those of us who said we didn't give a tinker's damn why they hated us. "After all, it's our Middle East policies that led to this. We really, really did deserve it."

Root-causers are to masochism what Michael Jordan once was to basketball: the finest practitioners of their craft. Nineteen terrorists filled with hatred couldn't possibly have killed 3,000 people because of their hatred. There had to be a "root cause."

And so the root-causers sallied forth to defend the Arab immigrants seized immediately after Sept. 11. We can't hold them without trial, the root-causers lamented. We're violating civil liberties and constitutional rights in the war against terrorism, they contended, even though that war was being waged to protect their own terrorist-loving skins.

Then a sniper killed several people in Montgomery County at the beginning of this month. In subsequent days, the sniper shot others in Washington, Prince George's County and three Virginia counties.

The profile convinced many that authorities had to be looking for a disgruntled white male. He and a companion may have been traveling in a white Chevy van. Soon white Chevy vans were being stopped and the vehicles and occupants searched.

Was probable cause a little thin here? Of course it was. But you didn't hear the root-causers saying so. A check with the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union found that no one -- not one citizen, certainly not a root-causer -- had called to complain about what appeared to be a violation of civil liberties on a massive scale.

Two black suspects have been charged in the shootings. Where are the root-causers to complain about all those white guys who were profiled, stopped and searched? Why haven't they asked why 41-year-old John Allen Muhammad and 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo hate us? Why can't the root-causers ask about the root causes of the suspects' alleged actions?

Could it be that root causes are somehow less important when a sniper -- who can target anyone, anytime, anywhere -- is on the loose? Or maybe the root-causers have a problem with the way the news media have already tried and convicted Muhammad and Malvo?

If they raised that point, the root-causers would be, at long last, right. In covering these shootings, the news media have acted as prosecutor and jury. Evidence said to link the suspects to the crime has been reported endlessly. News reports indicating Muhammad is a truly disturbed man have aired on television. The phrase "innocent until proven guilty" has been all but sandblasted from public consciousness.

"Where's this trial going to be held?" my son-in-law asked me as we drove from Towson to bucolic, quiet and peaceful Pimlico in the city.

Neptune could be a possibility, since that may be the only place Muhammad and Malvo can get a jury with even a pretense of impartiality.

Oh, yes, prosecutors and police have provided the news media with a ton of evidence: fingerprints, the alleged sniper weapon, a vehicle (which looks nothing like a white Chevy van) and written notes from the supposed killers. But we haven't heard from a defense lawyer yet. And a good defense lawyer, with a good investigator, could turn up facts that might -- emphasis on might -- make all that prosecutorial evidence collapse like the proverbial deck of cards.

Baltimoreans need only remember what a truly superb defense attorney, A. Dwight Pettit, did to prosecutors in the first trial ofEric Stennett -- accused of killing a police officer -- despite the seemingly convincing evidence against him. Pettit got the jury to believe that much of the evidence wasn't so convincing after all.

But don't expect the root-causers to bring up any of this. They've been quiet since the sniper shootings started and have remained silent -- delightfully so -- since Muhammad and Malvo were arrested. Maybe root-causers figure root causes don't matter when the terrorism is of the home-grown variety.

Or maybe they realize that one of them could have taken a bullet in the back.

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