Whatever the facts of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case may turn out to be, it is instructive in how the media narrative works. Many reporters and pundits are ignoring the forest of reality while waiting to climb the one tree and go out on a limb assuming a local crime story reinforces their world view.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise that three of today’s best suspense novelists — writers who stand firm against the media narrative of crazy killer veterans, reflexively racist cops and imperialist CIA oppressors — are prize-winning journalists from the liberal troika of the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and, yes, the New York Times.

Soft Target by Stephen Hunter

It will surprise no thriller fan that Stephen Hunter is less than politically correct. For more than 20 years and through 17 novels, Hunter has tweaked media narratives and refuted their clichés about guns and the men who use them. His most famous novels, which feature former Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger, celebrate the small-town American fighting man who fights his country’s wars and has contempt for the elites who underestimate him.

In his last Swagger book, I, Sniper, Hunter showed he was fed up with the industry that awarded him a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism as a writer for the Washington Post. In what could be seen as a one-paragraph summary of Thomas Sowell’s The Vision of the Anointed, Hunter put these words in the mouth of a frustrated FBI agent:

The narrative is the set of assumptions the press believes in, possibly without even knowing that it believes in them. It’s so powerful because it’s unconscious. It’s not like they get together every morning and decide “these are the lies we tell today.” No, that would be too crude and honest. Rather, it’s a set of casual non-rigorous assumptions about a reality they’ve never really experienced that’s arranged in such a way as to reinforce their best and most ideal presumptions about themselves and their importance to the system and the way they’ve chosen to live their lives. It’s their way of arranging things a certain way what they all believe in without ever really addressing it carefully. It permeates their whole culture. They know, for example, that Bush is a moron and Obama a saint. They know Communism was a phony threat cooked up by right-wing cranks as a way to leverage power to the executive. They know Saddam didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, the response to Katrina was f—ed up, torture never works. … Cheney’s a devil, Biden’s a genius. …The story [the central frame up in I, Sniper] was somewhat suspiciously concocted exactly to their prejudices, just as Jayson Blair’s made-up stories and Dan Rather’s Air National Guard documents were. And the narrative is the bedrock of their culture, the keystone of their faith, the altar of their church. They don’t even know they’re true believers, because in theory they despise the true believer in anything. But they will absolutely de-frackin-stroy anybody who makes them question all that.

This was written too early to add:  “And innocent Trayvon Martin was executed for Walking While Black to buy Skittles by a racist white Hispanic who listens to Rush Limbaugh.”

Hunter’s latest, Soft Target (Simon and Schuster, $26.99), makes the rant above seem subtle. On the surface it updates Die Hard with the setting in the Mall of America. A Marine sniper is trapped with 1,000 customers on Black Friday by a team of jihadists calling itself the Mumbai Brigade.

That’s on the surface. At its core, Soft Target is a withering media and political satire that takes fewer prisoners than its hero, Ray Cruz, son of Swagger.

You see, the man in charge of the response to the terror attack is Colonel Douglas Obobo of the Minnesota State Police, whom Hunter describes as a charismatic media darling being pushed to be the first black director of the FBI. Hunter goes on to add he “hadn’t really done anything. His career was primarily a phenomenon of showing up, giving speeches, accepting awards, then moving up to the next level.”

Obobo scoffs that terrorism is the motive for the raid, opining that “other than a few Arabic-styled scarves, there is no evidence for that.”  He goes for negotiations rather than confrontation, while the jihadists — spurred on by a local radical imam who is good at pleading persecution whenever someone objects to his sermons — plan to go out in a blaze of glory, taking their hostages with them,.

Ultimately, of course, it turns out it is the terrorists who are trapped in the Mall with Ray Cruz. Soft Target is shorter and more obvious than the average Hunter book, but it’s great fun, fueled by Hunter’s knowledge of weapons and tactics — and his newly revealed sense of outrage.

Besides, who can resist a thriller where the department store Santa gets sniped by a Muslim terrorist on page one?

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