The sniper's dual citizenship.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Oct. 22 2002 6:37 PM

The Sniper's Dual Citizenship

Washington's Virginia and Maryland suburbs harbor two mutually hostile tribes. Does the sniper belong to both?

One fact about the sniper currently terrorizing the Washington area that has drawn very little comment is that he seems to travel frequently between Maryland and Virginia. It may be that his travel pattern is entirely aimless—for all we know, he simply drives onto the Interstate until he passes 10 or 12 exits, gets off, finds a perch close to a convenient getaway, then squeezes the trigger. But it may also be that he is habituated to driving in both the Virginia and the Maryland suburbs of D.C. If that's the case, it ought to narrow the pool of suspects.

Most people think of Washington, D.C., as the nation's capital. For the area's suburbanites, though, it's the land mass that separates Maryland and Virginia. The absence of a major north-south highway running through D.C. makes it surprisingly difficult to travel from one state to the other, even though the physical distance is small. To get from, say, Arlington, Va., to Silver Spring, Md., you either have to drive around D.C. on the Beltway or through D.C. over congested city streets. These obstacles are sufficiently great that going from suburban Virginia to suburban Maryland, or vice versa, can seem like a fairly big deal. Chatterbox lives at the northern tip of D.C., a few blocks from the Maryland border. That makes him a virtual Marylander, with the attendant Virginia phobia. On the few occasions when Chatterbox travels to suburban Virginia, he invariably gets lost and ends up driving in the wrong direction down a street named after some famous American traitor (there's a Lee Highway and a Jefferson Davis Highway). Virginians no doubt harbor a corresponding fear about getting lost in suburban Maryland and ending up bumper-to-bumper on Rockville Pike, Maryland's Great White Way for shopping malls.

The gulf between Virginia and Maryland isn't only a function of geography. It's also sociological. Indeed, it's probably not much of an exaggeration to say that Maryland suburbanites and Virginia suburbanites constitute two mutually hostile tribes. The divide isn't economic; suburban Virginia and suburban Maryland are both fairly wealthy enclaves, with lower-middle-class pockets tucked in here and there. (According to the Washingtonian magazine, there's a little more diversity in Maryland.) What, then, separates the tribes? The biggest factor is politics. Democrats tend to live in the Maryland suburbs, whereas Republicans tend to live in the Virginia suburbs. There's also the matter of regional identification. People who live in suburban Maryland tend to identify themselves with the Northeast, whereas people who live in the Virginia suburbs tend to think of themselves as Southerners. (In actuality, both groups live in the mid-Atlantic region.) There's a split between meritocratic and entrepreneurial culture: Maryland harbors more Ivy League lawyers, while northern Virginia harbors more Internet tycoons. (AOL is headquartered in northern Virginia.) In the matter of religion, suburban Maryland is more Jewish and Catholic than northern Virginia, which is more Protestant and evangelical. And there's an urban-rural divide: Suburban Maryland lies about an hour south of Baltimore, the place Washingtonians flock to when they want to feel like they're in a "real" city, whereas suburban Virginia lies about an hour east of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Washingtonians go when they want to see fall colors, rolling farmland, and Civil War battlefields.

There are plenty of exceptions to these neat divisions—Hickory Hill, the Robert F. Kennedy homestead (where Ethel Kennedy still lives) is located in northern Virginia, and so is WETA, the local PBS affiliate. And certainly over time the distinctive characters of the Maryland and Virginia have tended to converge, with northern Virginia becoming rapidly less rural and suburban Maryland becoming rapidly more Sunbelt-like.

Still, as generalizations go, those about Virginia people versus Maryland people hold up decently well. You don't find many people who feel at home in both states.

Our sniper, though, does (and seems disinclined to loiter in the city lying between them). He's a Maryland suburbanite and a Virginia suburbanite. Or rather, he is if the locations of his shootings turn out not to be accidental or random. What such dual citizenship would identify him as, Chatterbox doesn't know. But whatever it is, it's unusual—not as unusual as his grotesque enthusiasm for serial murder, but unusual nonetheless.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.