Special Reports

Dark and stormy Tacoma draws glare of national media

Journalists are amazing. Imagine the skill required to parachute into a town - as so many did into Tacoma last week - and in a matter of hours be able to characterize the place and its people.

On a big story like the investigation into accused snipers John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo, it's not enough to find whatever facts are available. Reporters - both national and regional - must grab whatever cliches and stereotypes they can to give the story "context," to explain how such a thing could happen. If not al-Qaida, then what?

The most abused quote was from a man who claimed to have heard gunshots in the Oakland-Madrona neighborhood where Muhammad lived, but didn't think twice. "In Tacoma, you hear shots all the time. You don't think much of it," he said.

True or not, it was that quote that allowed a Seattle writer and The New York Times to carry to its extreme this tendency to figure everything out in the flash of a single news cycle. In an article on the newspaper's editorial page titled "Gunfire at Night in a Military Town," Charles T. Mudede declared himself unsurprised that Tacoma could be linked to the sniper.

"The fact that this marksman and John Lee Malvo, his traveling companion, could be engaging in target practice in a dense, working-class neighborhood without alarming the neighbors or police speaks directly to the kind of city and culture they live in," he wrote.

Mudede described "the transitory nature of an Army town" with neighborhoods used and reused by soldiers "who move on without anyone noticing." He wrote of the so-called sound of freedom from the "constant roar and growl of massive cargo planes landing or taking off from McChord" and the sleep-disturbing booms from artillery fire and machine-gun fire from Fort Lewis.

While gunshots in Seattle would attract "a swarm of police cars" in minutes, the same events would pass in Tacoma "with little or no objection." Still, there were protests when the Army tried to restrict hunting at Fort Lewis, he wrote.

"Tacoma may be densely populated, but it has managed to preserve many of its frontier tendencies," Mudede wrote. Tacoma is a place "which is at once urban and yet maintains the feel of an unmanaged outpost."

All this led to a sweeping conclusion: "The woods around Tacoma have not been and may never be tamed. Their darkness may have given killers a sense of the power of the invisible."

This is not Mudede's first foray south from Seattle to "Tough Town." His August 2000 article in the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger painted Tacoma as Seattle's "burly brother to the south."

But he was hardly an expert then, calling Lakewood a "working-class neighborhood in South Tacoma" and admitting that he needed directions to find the entrance to McChord so he could experience the thunder of the landing transports up close.

That didn't dissuade him from reaching equally damning conclusions: "By all accounts, Tacoma is a failure. Every day it lives failure, sleeps failure, eats failure; this is part of its charm."

Now, thanks to the Times, his expertise has been taken to a national audience - giving credibility to his diagnosis that Tacoma and its culture birthed the snipers.

It's difficult to craft a response to such an analysis without it being dismissed as defensiveness, as denial.

But as disturbing as this is to locals who may not recognize their image in the media's mirror, we can take solace in the comfort it gives the rest of the country. If we're to blame, then they're OK.

So sleep well, America. Malvo and Muhammad aren't your sons. They're products of Tacoma. And the military culture. And those dark, dark woods.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657