I am thinking about the East Coast man who kills from afar. I am thinking he's an outcast who fantasizes about being a Marine sniper. I am thinking he is a man in love with the taste of power over human life, a power that can taste divine.
It is 1997, and I am lying in a tent by a lake with a friend who once skinned a man.
My friend's father brainwashed my pal into skinning the man.
My friend's father ran a small cult near my home and told my friend when he was just a teenager that he was the son of God.
My friend was 15 when he killed the man. In 1997, at the age of 27, he got out of prison on a legal technicality. Most people wanted him electrocuted.
My friend's father claimed to be a Vietnam vet, a Marine assassin. He was lying. My friend's father taught my friend how to kill up close and to kill from afar.
One shot, one kill.
My friend's father was preparing his son to assassinate all the cult's enemies -- a substantial list. The state patrol showed up before the assassinations took place. Had my friend succeeded in the assassinations, he would have surpassed Charlie Starkweather as the worst serial killer in the history of the Midwest.
I am watching my 6-year-old son play "007" on Nintendo 64. His favorite weapon is the sniper rifle. It's my favorite, too. I can't explain why. I make him change the game's setting so the heads of enemy troops look like blocks with eyes -- less real. My wife catches us playing the game and makes my son return it to his friend. I'm embarrassed.
My friend skinned the man because he was trying to leave his father's cult. My friend and his father tied the man up in a pig shed and tortured him for three days. My friend shot the man, shot off his fingers, jammed a shovel handle up the man's rectum and then cut slabs of skin and meat off of the man's legs.
The tortured man was, by all accounts, a gentle, deeply religious outcast who came to my friend's father seeking direction in life.
The man was raised Mennonite, so pacifism and martyrdom were concepts always close to his heart.
The man didn't fight the torture. He apparently believed God wanted him tortured for his sinful wavering of faith.
He died when the shovel handle ruptured his bowels, the autopsy said.
I am lying in the tent next to my friend who skinned a man when I hear him say the most chilling thing I have ever heard a man say:
"Did I love the power? Of course I loved the power. How could I not love the power? I was 15 years old and I was the son of God and it was my decision whether or not a man lived or died. It's the heart of darkness, dude. And once you've experienced it, it's tough to turn back."
I slept poorly that night.
My favorite rifle is the 30.06. A neighbor in Nebraska used to take me target shooting on his farm. I once hit a bull's eye from 200 yards, and the high lasted for two days. I had never busted something from so far. My other favorite gun is the AR-15, the civilian version of the M-16. I once shot a carp in the Missouri River with one. The AR-15 likely is the assault rifle used by the Maryland killer. Any real marksman will tell you it's a crummy sniper rifle. But it's pretty good for shredding things up close.
I am reading about the tarot card allegedly left by the Maryland killer near the scene of his youngest victim. The card had the words "I am God" written on it. I think of the Vietnam snipers who left calling cards on their victims. I think of a lot of bad sniper movies and a lot of kick-ass sniper video games. I think of the distance the card was found from the youngest victim -- 150 yards. Big deal. I could hit a torso from there, and I suck.
I am 11 years old and I am fantasizing about shooting a boy named Patrick who says he plans to beat me up the next day. He is a foot taller than me. I don't have a chance in a fistfight. But I have a buddy whose dad has a 30.06. I imagine Patrick standing in the schoolyard bullying a friend. I imagine Patrick hearing a faint whizzing sound, then dropping into a slop of mud and his own brain pulp.
The problem is: Patrick won't know what hit him.
I am thinking about a man who hates me who I am told can hit a head-size target from 400 yards. I used to think about him often, now only occasionally. I am told he is now back in prison.
I am occasionally fearful. To experience sniper fear, you must know a sniper is lurking before you are killed. If you don't know, you don't fear. You just drop dead with scrambled brains.
I am talking to Robbie Barrkman, president of Robar Companies Inc. of Phoenix, makers of what is widely considered the best sniper rifle in the world. He agrees that 150 yards isn't much of a shot. If it was 300 yards with an AR-15, then you've got a serious precision shooter.
Barrkman himself is one of the top precision shooting trainers in the world.
Sales of his $5,000 rifles, one of which is accurate from up to a mile, have been rising in the last few years. But Barrkman's guns are almost exclusively sold to military and police sharpshooters. He says Robar rifles have 26 confirmed kills in which hostages were saved, and no confirmed kills by lunatics.
Although Barrkman says the vast majority of precision shooters are good people, he does occasionally see the man more in love with power than the art or duty of shooting from afar.
"There are definitely guys out there who are just excited about carrying a gun."
Barrkman, an erudite South African, says he believes God complexes aren't reserved for military snipers. He says he believes doctors are much worse that way.
And for the last time, the term "sniper" should only be reserved for military or police sharpshooters "trained to do a very specific job sanctioned by the government."
The Maryland killer is not a sniper, he says. The Maryland killer is just a scumbag with a rifle.
I am in college and sitting with a friend drinking peach schnapps on the grave of Charlie Starkweather at midnight of Starkweather's birthday. My friend thinks it's some weirdly cool ritual, but I feel nothing but contempt for the executed punk lying beneath me.
My friend who skinned a man loved to practice marksmanship. It was his favorite part of the paramilitary training under his father. His least favorite part was when his father would kick him to see if his son was tough enough to keep from crying. My friend still likes to shoot, but he says it's different now without the impending Armageddon. It's just sport now. He still shies away from church.
I am sitting in church silently holding the belief that God is a sociopath.
A military sniper's role is twofold, Barrkman says. He stealthily kills from afar, usually a key enemy figure, then creates fear and uncertainty in a group with his act of stealthily killing one of them from afar.
The Germans perfected the technique in World War II to demoralize the Americans and British, Barrkman notes. Snipers bring the psychic damage of battle into camp. Believing a sniper is lurking makes death imminent 24 hours a day.
"The sniper became a very powerful instrument of war," Barrkman says.
Vietnam-era scouts left calling cards on the bodies of Viet Cong they had just shot. It usually wasn't just a macho stunt, but rather an attempt to demoralize those who discovered the body.
The sniper then takes on the character of the mythic angels of death present in every culture. Unseen, unknowable, lurking, omnipresent. The Grim Reaper for us. All-powerful over your life at any moment.
And now, in Maryland, the tactic has been brought to the suburbs.
I am unseen and all-powerful over your life. It's either sexy stuff for al-Qaeda, or sexy stuff for an outcast.
I am reading a newspaper article claiming that, in the last decade, the Internet and sniper video games, movies and books have spawned a massive "sniper culture" made up of thousands of mostly non-military, non-police sniper wanna-bes. One study estimates there are 100,000 high-powered rifles in private hands in the United States.
Robbie Barrkman is unsure whether he could pull the trigger of one of his SR-90 precision rifles with Saddam Hussein in his sights.
"I'd like to think I could shoot Saddam," he says, "but you can't say for sure until you're there.
"I do believe there are people who are bad for this world. Say Jeffrey Dahmer. I don't want to go in his fridge, you know? I would hope I could have shot him, but I don't know.
"I do know, though, that I would like to shoot this son of a bitch in Maryland."
I am 96 percent sure I would shoot the son of a bitch in Maryland.
My friend who skinned a man was an outcast in junior high. He was a good athlete, but his father wouldn't let him play football because he didn't want his son touching the skin of a pig.
Kids heckled him with nicknames. He had a crush on a girl. She thought he was the biggest freak in school.
Perhaps classmates helped make the monster, he says. It's tough to say with so many ingredients.
He was relieved when his father pulled him from school and took him to the cult compound.
I am not sleeping. Skinning or sniping, sniping or skinning. Which is worse? Which is easier? Which hits your enemy with the greater "I am your God?"
To the sociopath, I suppose, it's an issue of sport, not human engagement. One is golf, the other wrestling.
Snipers clearly are the greater artists, the greater talents. Besides all the difficulty of getting into position, particularly for Marine snipers, the shot itself is an incredible work of mental acuity and physical calm.
"There are only a few hundred people on Earth capable of hitting a target from 1,000 yards," Barrkman says.
Sure, it's somewhat like golf. How will gravity and wind affect the trajectory over a given distance?
But snipers work over much greater distances. And enemy territory is more stressful than the 15th fairway. Mirages come into play. What am I seeing? And heat rising from the earth, Barrkman says, can lift a bullet several inches. How moist is the air? Is it raining?
And greens don't run away.
And in golf, if you miss, you just walk closer and shoot again.
And golfers go whole lives without a hole in one. A Marine sniper will die if every shot isn't a hole in one.
I am a senior in college and I'm visiting my girlfriend when a phone call comes from her ex-boyfriend. He says he is coming over right now to shoot us. I grab a .357 I borrowed from an Army Ranger buddy and run out to a line of bushes adjacent to her bedroom window. My plan is to shoot him before he shoots us. Lying in wait, I wonder if America's gun laws are about to save me or kill me. And would I really pull the trigger? He doesn't show, so I don't find out the answers.
Robbie Barrkman says he began building precision rifles because he couldn't find anyone in the world to build his own shooting rifles to his demanding specifications.
He is the exclusive precision rifle provider for the Los Angeles Police Department. Several other departments around the country use his rifles, including the Albuquerque Police Department.
You might remember the television images of an Albuquerque father dangling his child over a bridge threatening to kill the child.
For a few seconds, the father pulled the child back over the surface of the bridge. A sniper with a Robar SR-90 shot the man in the head. The baby fell the harmless distance to the roadway and was saved.
"I don't know of many police departments in the country that don't have a story of a police sniper saving someone," he says.
In 1991, an FBI sniper shot a bank robber who was holding hostages at a Valley National Bank building in Scottsdale. Barrkman consulted with the FBI sniper to find out how to refine his equipment.
My friend who skinned a man says he felt no remorse for the man as he skinned him. But he was a little nervous about skinning the man's leg because he wasn't sure of the proper way to do it. He was used to cutting through hides. If he screwed up, his dad would probably kick him.
He remembers his hands sweating as he peeled away the flesh. Stress was a proficiency issue, not a moral issue.
All in all, as far as killing a man, he believes it's less stressful to kill a man from afar.
Once in prison, as psychologists and fellow inmates explained to him that he wasn't divine, my friend was slowly overwhelmed by remorse. The more he felt human, the more he felt remorse.
Remorse rose in inverse relation to divinity.
"It's painful growing from a God to a filthy killer," he tells me.
I am 12 years old and alone in my tent on a camping trip with eight friends. They have decided they don't like me anymore and they have spent the last two hours around the campfire calling me names. I am holding my Plumb hatchet in my sweaty right hand.
In my desperation, I tell God to prove he exists. I ask him to send a shooting star in 10 seconds. I look out the door and begin counting.
At eight I begin counting much slower. At 22, I'm probably counting once for every three seconds.
At the count of 25, a shooting star whizzes across the sky like a tracer bullet. I sleep well that night in the tardy but present hands of God. The next day my friends and I make peace.
I later found out we were camping during the Perseid meteor shower.
My friend who skinned a man is now a fine carpenter with a wife and young son. He is the only man I know who overcame psychosis. Actually, it wasn't full-blown psychosis. Doctors said it was just temporary psychosis induced by brainwashing by his father who pretended to be an ex-Marine sniper.
I am on the phone with Billie Sol Estes, the famed Texas millionaire con man and buddy of Lyndon Johnson. Billie Sol is telling me who really shot John F. Kennedy from the grassy knoll. It was an old buddy of Johnson's, Estes says, "a great marksman and a real Texas stone killer." Estes says the man was "psychotic." He says it was the same guy who shot the federal ag department investigator who was trying to link Estes' con jobs to Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson back in 1962.
I am 10 years old sitting in a pew imagining a terrorist attack on the church. I run to the basement, strangle one terrorist with piano wire, take his assault rifle and methodically walk through the church killing all the invaders. I am a hero. It is 1977, so the terrorists in my mind look Russian. The gun is an AK-47. My only video game is Pong.
I am at the dinner table when my 10-year-old son says he wants an "unloaded sniper rifle" so he can see his friends while playing night tag. I look at him confused. He corrects himself by saying all he really needs is the infrared scope.
I am sitting at my computer reading Internet sites for sniper enthusiasts. The sites terrify me not because of the issues being discussed -- in my mind, military and police snipers do save American lives -- but because of all the macho death poetry and gallows humor celebrating their work:
"Making the world a better place . . . one shot at a time."
I am in the GameWorks video arcade finding myself unable to leave the sniper games.
I am reading the USMC Scout/Sniper Association Web site trying to figure out if the following sniper joke is funny or psychotic:
"One well-hidden USMC sniper,
"One M-14 7.62 MM,
"One scared-for-their-life running target,
I am sleeping in my bed when my 10-year-old son wakes me at midnight. He's been up holding vigil over his sick parakeet, which he bought three days before with birthday money. He is crying. As I hug him, I am quietly thrilled to see my child show so much grief and compassion for a small bird he's only known for three days. The bird dies the next morning.
I am jogging the next day through a crisp fall morning and daydreaming of another crisp fall morning walking a red-cedar windbreak with my son as we search for a pheasant to kill.
I am remembering a line from Stanley Kubrick's movie Full Metal Jacket, in which the drill sergeant is yelling at his recruits:
"God has a hard-on for the Marines because we kill everything we see."
When he was 15, my friend who skinned a man loved the movie Red Dawn.
I am 22 and driving down a rural highway at 80 mph with my buddy's .357 at my side. I pick it up and sight it on barns as they whiz by. For a moment, I am rolling terror. A dangerous man. A powerful man not to be messed with. For 10 seconds I am the pathetic, dry-firing ghost of Charlie Starkweather.
My friend who skinned a man says he would have shot every state patrolman who raided his father's compound if he had been near his high-powered rifles when the raid began. We agreed that the patrolmen made a terrible tactical mistake during the raid. We agreed they should have brought in a sniper with a Robar SR-90 and blown my friend's head off from half a mile away. No gunfight, no fear, no remorse, just my friend's scrambled brains.
I am sitting in church silently believing that God might not be a sociopath.
I am talking to my friend who skinned a man and I ask him if I can use his name in a column. He asks me not to because he is up for a supervisory position and his boss still doesn't know the details of his past. And he says he wants to be the person who tells his son that he once was capable of skinning a man. He is dead set on breaking the cycle of violence in his family. I honor his request because he is my hero. He is my hero because he has built an honorable, sane life from a foundation of horrific insanity.
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I am reading the Marine sniper association Web site and I see a message posted by a high school student named Josue. He states simply:
"I want to be a sniper."
I am unsure what might be motivating this young man, or what he might actually mean. I figure he probably doesn't know, either.