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.

Sure, from the refrigerated, plywood studios of the "CNN Center in Atlanta," 550 safe miles to the south, it is as nothing to fill air time with casual speculation about "why," last Tuesday in Aspen Hill, Maryland, John Allen Muhammad might have felt it necessary to disembowel 35-year-old bus driver Conrad Johnson with a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle. Just as it was much too easy, much too soon after September 11, 2001, for far too many otherwise intelligent Americans to start pulling their oh-so-serious-and-responsible chins over Very Important Questions about the "sources" of anti-American rage in the Islamic Middle East. But if you live within driving distance of Conrad Johnson's widow and two orphaned boys, if the yellow police tape still floats in the wind at your Washington-area neighborhood strip mall, and if, for that matter, the body of your husband or daughter has been reduced to so much microscopic Trade Center dust in Staten Island's Fresh Kills landfill--well, then you do not care, you cannot care, what "motivated" the assassin. And none of the rest of us should waste much time caring about it, either. Especially if the assassin remains at large.

Once more, then: Is "terrorism" the proper name for such a crime? So as to distinguish it from wholly "senseless" murders? And, too, from those more familiar and "ordinary" murders of passion and greed that have plagued the world since time began? In some essential respect, we think, the question is frivolous--grotesque, even. Because the only genuinely humane, immediate response to atrocities like the Washington sniper attacks and Mohamed Atta's airline hijackings--and the necessary formal response of an organized civil society--is collective fury. Along with a controlled but ferocious determination to incapacitate and crush the perpetrators as quickly as possible. Deep-think analysis can and must wait.

In any case, of course it's "terrorism." A man takes aim at the torso of an unsuspecting stranger, a target who has walked into his telescopic sight by purest circumstance, and coolly pulls the trigger. Then he packs up, walks away, and does it again and again and again, until he is caught. What else can we call this but "terrorism," whether or not there pretends to be some "political" cause at its root? The act itself, not whatever deranged and vicious pseudo-logic might reside in the actor's head, determines its character. And the character of terrorism, in turn, determines--sharply delimits--what effective means we have available to protect ourselves from it. Killing the terrorist is one such means, and instinct tells us there aren't very many others. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is surely onto something when she calls this conclusion a "no brainer."

And yet: How commonly and cavalierly we retreat deep inside our brains, and convene our seminars, and issue our solemn State Department démarches, and demand superhuman, practically self-lacerating restraint from non-American victims of . . . perfectly equivalent barbarity. In the United States, John Allen Muhammad is a show-stopper, transfixing in his evil, a nationwide obsession precisely because his crimes are so unusual. But there are parts of the world where such crimes are routine. Israel, most obviously, is beset by innumerable men like Muhammad; suicide bombings make for more spectacular television, so that is all we ever see, but random Israeli civilians, hundreds of them over the years, are gunned down by Palestinian snipers like clockwork. On yet another continent, even as this sentence is written, Chechen "rebels" are holding hundreds of ordinary Russians captive in a Moscow theater, have already murdered at least one of them, and are threatening to blow the place up on top of all the rest unless Vladimir Putin's government surrenders to a series of "nationalist" demands.

This stuff, and just because it marches under a counterfeit flag of legitimate politics, many of us prefer to fancy a "cycle of violence." And many of us are pleased to condemn it, and whatever muscular reaction its victims can muster in self-defense, as if both were unnatural and both a sin. But they are not the same animal, and it is cruel and stupid to say they are. A terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist, no matter what purports to be his motivation. For the moment, having met John Allen Muhammad, Washington, D.C., seems to appreciate this point. One hopes the lesson sticks. It has global application.

--David Tell, for the Editors