The Magazine

Yes, the Sniper Was a Terrorist

Nov 4, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 08 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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AN INTERESTING THING happened in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia last Thursday, as the nation woke up to the news that two people thought to be responsible for the Washington area's recent wave of sniper murders had finally been arrested.

Out "there," beyond the Beltway, print reporters scrambled to find out anything and everything they could about the suspects, 41-year-old John Allen Muhammad and 17-year-old John Lee Malvo. And, meantime, cable talk-show bookers--to whom the wait for fully established fact is a perpetual, intolerable annoyance--treated the world to yet another round of "retired FBI profilers" and other such witch doctors, the better to explain what might have motivated the murders. Guesswork question number one, apparently: Was it terrorism, or something more "mundane"?

Here at home, though, along the zigzaggy line from Ashland, Virginia, to Bowie, Maryland, where we're still scrubbing gore from our shopping center sidewalks--and still praying for two half-eviscerated victims who remain hospitalized in critical condition, one of them a 13-year-old boy--the major concern lies, interestingly, elsewhere. Nearest the crime scenes, it turns out, few of us, least of all those criminal justice system authorities who've lived the sniper horror most immediately and intensely these past three weeks, give a rat's patootie why the shooters shot. The only relief we feel is that they aren't shooting anymore. And the only question we're asking ourselves is: What's the fastest, best guaranteed process by which to execute these two bastards?

Last Friday's Washington Post reported this issue with bracing candor, and in appropriately expansive detail: a 25-paragraph story, "Chances of Death Penalty Could Decide Trial Venue," spread across all six columns of an inside page. "Prosecutors from Maryland, Virginia and the federal government were maneuvering yesterday for the first chance to try the sniper shootings case," Post correspondents Craig Timberg and Katherine Shaver explained, "with a high-level debate centering on which venue has the best chance of carrying out the death penalty."

The use of a firearm during commission of a federal crime--like a $10 million extortion plot--is itself a capital offense under Title 18 of the U.S. Code, so John Ashcroft's Justice Department is considering whether to exercise supervening authority over any trial. Prosecutors in Virginia, where the sniper attacks killed three and wounded two others, want the case for themselves, however, and they are arguing for jurisdiction by explicit appeal to the Commonwealth's reputation for unforgiving juries--and its resulting "experience" with the death penalty: Virginia has executed 86 prisoners since 1976, more, per capita, than any other state in the country. Maryland, the Post notes by contrast, has shown a "historic reluctance to carry out executions"; there've been only three of them over the past 26 years, none since 1998, and an across-the-board moratorium on the death penalty, imposed by outgoing governor Parris Glendening, is technically still in place. Nevertheless, Maryland elected officials of both parties adamantly insist that they want to--and can, and will--put John Allen Muhammad to death. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democratic nominee in next week's gubernatorial election, calls lethal injection for the alleged sniper an absolute "no brainer."

This seems to us an altogether unsurprising, but nevertheless significant, phenomenon--and not simply, or even primarily, for what it might suggest about capital punishment, a vastly complicated issue on which various editors of this magazine have widely divergent views. We are struck, instead, by the extent to which responsible adult Americans generally, when suddenly confronted close at hand with a horrifying campaign of systematic violence conducted against random civilians, instinctively reject all those luxuries of dispassionate intellectual analysis that we habitually indulge in when other people are doing the dying--someplace far, far away.