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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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