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CONVERSATION PIECES X: SNIPER
By: Wayne Brown
It’s a waiting game. I am speaking of this process of negotiating with a hostage-taking suspect. In my job as a SWAT sniper, it’s a waiting game. Those of us task with this responsibility have extremely good marksmanship skills for sure but more than that, we all have patience; the patience to wait and hope for a better outcome than the one depicted within the crosshairs of this rifle scope.
When the call first comes in, there is plenty of excitement and lots of folks moving about. My gear stays at the ready and close at hand when I am called to drop my routine duties and move into the SWAT role. The adrenalin immediately starts to flow and the mind begins to race thinking of all the possibilities involved in every situation. There is always an element of danger for those involved but not so much for me. I bring the danger in many ways just as much as the shooter or hostage taker on the other end of my rifle. I bring the danger element to his life and potentially some element of it to those whom he holds hostage. Bullets do not discriminate between guilt and innocence. On that basis, what I do has to be right, first time, every time.
Once the team arrives at the site, we cover the details for updates. I study the overhead views in black and white photos and pick out potential shooting positions that will give me the best advantage for a clean shot should one be required. Once those locations are identified, I head out with my spotter in trail to visit each one and size up the situation. We are on the move, staying out of sight but hurrying to our destination to assess its value in the shot. We choose multiple sites from multiple angles because the most obvious one normally does not work. We have to move quickly and find the correct one in order to capitalize on any opportunity it might offer should the negotiations begin to fail.
When we finally locate the best position, the spotter goes to work assessing the distance, offsets, windage, etc. to assist me in calculating the shot on the target. At some point, a query comes over my radio headset as to the status of the target. If our intended target is within view and aligned in my sights, I quickly reply with a single code word that tells other members of the team that we are set and ready to take the target out once the signal is given. This status check goes on at intervals in order to reconfirm the status and allow the team to weigh its options. If there are complications such as a hostage close at hand with the target, I turn in a negative status. In this business, we don’t take innocent lives to stop criminals if we can avoid it.
Where does the desire and motivation come from in a man who has such a task as mine? You might think that I never asked myself that question but I have and I do over and over. I have answered it over and over to myself as well. There is no desire or motivation in terms of wanting to kill another human being. I never look at it in that way. My job is to save lives…the lives of innocent victims and those endangered by a person committing a wrongful act. My job is one of many in a level of responses to the actions of this person. When I go to work one of two things has occurred, either the negotiations have broken down or the lives of the hostages are determined to be in grave danger. At that point, it is not a function of desire or motivation but one of duty and a duty that I take very seriously.
Once I enter the shooting position, I shut out as much of the world as I possibly can. It becomes a game of control, patience, and discipline. I consciously begin to control my breathing rate and calm myself as much as possible. I look for a comfortable shooting situation as the subject may be in my sights for a long period before any decision is made that will involve me. I have to fight the fatigue of waiting, of holding the weapon steady on the target and maintaining my absolute concentration on the shot. If the time comes at which I must carry out my duty, I will likely get only one opportunity to complete the task successfully and with as much humane treatment as I can show under the conditions.
I have worked at this shooting game a long time and honed my skills in the process. I have long since mastered the technicalities of the process…those dealing with the actual mechanics of the weapon and the shot. One never totally masters the emotional aspects of it. Taking a human life at one’s option is a power which can be consuming and must be managed with respect. If I had my choices, I would choose to simply line up the shot and make it as quickly as possible before the emotional aspects became a factor. In reality, it does not work that way. In a strange sort of way, the time that I spend with the target in my crosshairs is a timeframe in which I get to know more and more about the person the longer I must hold the target. I notice that he is left-handed by the way he holds his weapon. He wears a watch on his right arm and carries his wallet on the same side. He likes blue jeans and tennis shoes. He keeps his hair cut neatly. In many ways, he is not unlike me…just a regular guy. These are thoughts that register and one acknowledges but it cannot deter me from my duty or else others may die.
Most people understand that wild animals are not at their most reasonable self if they are cornered and scared. This element comes through even in this situation which is populated with people who have the ability to reason and not act on instinct like animals do. Still, when cornered, the human mind seems to turn more toward instinct than logic in its response to the situation. Given that fact, people elect to do some things than normal logic would advise against. That is what makes them so unpredictable, so dangerous. They are trapped, cornered and have no way out. Instincts take over. Desperation runs high and no one can predict how things will play out. The talking process attempts to bring this person back from that abyss; to reinstall the logic file into their brain which allows them to understand that the time has come to stop what they are doing and simply give up. That discussion is in the best interest of everyone involved including the target. But with desperation running high and nerves on edge, the talks often breakdown and do so rather rapidly. It is at that point that decisions must be made as to whether my services are required. Once that decision is made, things move with blinding speed for the window to carry out the action may close at any second and all opportunity to save the hostages will be gone. I stay at the ready knowing this is the case.
On this day, the talking works and the suspect calms downs and listens to reason. I watch it all play out through my scope confirming over my radio that the target has indeed thrown his gun away and is lying flat on the floor with his hands behind his back. I see other members of the SWAT enter the premises from various angles and take control of the target. My work here is done and I nod to my spotter to move out.
Back at the rally point, the target had been taken into custody. He sits in the back of a police cruiser handcuffed to a restraining rail. The hostages are all safe with their loved ones now and things are beginning to wind down back toward normal. I slowly walk over and glance into the vehicle. The target looks up and our eyes meet. He has no idea who I am…just another cop. He has no that I have held his life in my hands for the past few hours. He has no idea and I say nothing. He’s just a regular looking guy….much like me.
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