A Snitch’s Dilemma
This weekend the New York Times Magazine publishes my story about Alex White, a police informant in Atlanta who helped bring his handlers to justice after they tried to use him to cover up their accidental killing of a 92-year-old widow.
I became interested in informants a couple of years ago after one in the employ of the FBI led four black Muslim men from Newburgh, New York (the “Newburgh Four”) to synagogues on my street in Riverdale, where they dropped off what they thought were bombs. They were immediately arrested by the scads of policemen lying in wait, and later convicted of terror charges.
I wrote about the ethical/legal problems of the case for Slate. But what really interested me was the moral world of the informant. What was it like to lead a double life like that? What was it like to dupe the others into following him into a fictional jihad (and long prison sentences)? Some of them weren’t nice people, but none would appear to pose a real threat if he weren’t around: How did he live with himself?
Snitches and informants, a staple of law enforcement, appear in many articles and movies. Seldom, however, does anyone explore in depth what it is like to be them. Partly I think this is because disloyalty is unattractive — in most cases, snitches are the opposite of heroic. Another reason may be that few snitches see much upside in talking to the press.
So I set out to find one who would, and I found Alex White. His breakup with the cops was dramatic — he came out on TV. And the reason for it, their killing of elderly Kathryn Johnston, horrified a city. He was free, more or less, to talk to me. This cover story in the Times Magazine is the result. It’s long, but it needed to be to do the story justice. Let me know what you think.