A Decade Later, Sniper Attacks' Unexpected Lessons

As we mark the 10th anniversary of the Washington, D.C.-area sniper attacks, a look at what the investigation revealed about racial stereotypes a decade ago.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Ten years ago today, people around Washington, D.C. took their first easy breaths after three weeks of terror.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Police have arrested two men in connection with the search for the Washington, D.C. area sniper. The two were found sleeping in a car at a rest stop along Interstate 70 near Frederick, Maryland.

MONTAGNE: John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo killed 10 people and wounded several others in Washington, D.C. and its suburbs. They were suspected in at least three other murders around the country. Commentator John Ridley says those crimes hold a lesson for us today.

JOHN RIDLEY, BYLINE: The events that came to a close 10 years ago were beyond imagination, not just the horror of the crimes themselves. By the time the investigation into the kill spree was over, the race of the key players would defy preconceptions of crime, media and leadership. At the time the shootings dominated the news, speculation dominated the coverage. Profilers gave a predictive model of the kind of person the shooter most likely would turn out to be - a white male loner in his thirties.

Calculated, methodical repetitive murder is what the Unabomber did. It's what Ted Bundy did. It was not the kind of crime committed by black men. But I have to be honest, and I don't know if it's because I've written crime fiction, but I figured arbitrarily crossing anybody off a list seemed really dumb.

And when the snipers were captured and their identities revealed, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo - a black man and a black teenager - were as different from the profile as one could imagine. And the only legacy that should be afforded Muhammad and Malvo is as a prime example in the argument against racial profiling of police work.

Another misconception on race was evident at the fore of the investigation. It was personified in Charles Moose, the chief of the Montgomery County Police Department. A decade ago, in the pre-Obama era, it was still difficult for many to conceive of a black man heading up a multi-departmental investigation charged with saving lives and hunting down killers. And Moose was not the icily stoic black superior officer of some TV cop show.

Following the shooting of then 13-year-old Iran Brown, Chief Moose put his emotions on display, standing before a bank of microphones and tearfully vowing that the shooter would be brought to justice.

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CHIEF CHARLES MOOSE: Now all of our victims have been innocent, have been defenseless. But now we're stepping over the line, because our children don't deserve this.

RIDLEY: We saw Moose as we rarely saw people of color in the news - as a fully rounded human being.

And there's a kicker with this story, a bizarre intersection with the downfall of a young, black hotshot writer for the New York Times - Jayson Blair. Though he had no particular skills as a crime reporter, the New York Times inexplicably - and in hindsight, ironically - made Blair its lead reporter on the sniper story.

Blair's falsified coverage of the crime was so blatant, police and government officials were forced to publicly contradict major portions of his reporting. But because the leadership at the Times couldn't conceive of a qualified reporter as being black or concede that an unqualified black reporter had to be fired, Blair remained at the paper long after he should've been sacked.

For me, 10 years on, the impact of all these individuals is undeniable - the lives lost, the justice done and the hypocrisy exposed. And they left us with one thing more: the need for all of us to be open to the possibility of unexpected people behaving in unexpected ways.

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MONTAGNE: Commentator John Ridley is the screenwriter for the upcoming movie, "Twelve Years a Slave."

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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