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Money, Ego, or Islam?

From the October 29, 2002 Dallas Morning News: Why did Muhammad and Malvo do it?

11:00 PM, Oct 29, 2002 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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Why did they do it?

Okay, to put it that way is to presume that "they"--John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo--are the Washington-area snipers. It is to presume that they indeed committed the murders, 10 in all, leaving three people wounded.

Someone may object to a question that denies Muhammad and Malvo the presumption of innocence. Very well: Let the record show that both men are innocent unless proved guilty beyond, as the criminal law requires, a reasonable doubt.

That said, however, both men look guilty as sin. Police caught them early Thursday morning while they were asleep in Muhammad's car, a 1990 blue Caprice, which they had parked at a highway rest stop in Maryland. Found in the car was a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle, which ballistic tests have confirmed was used in at least 11 of the 13 sniper attacks. Found, too, were a scope and a tripod. The rear seat of the car had been removed, and a 3-inch-diameter hole had been drilled through the trunk--a "gun port," apparently.

The snipers didn't even have to get out of the car to shoot. They could lie prone, the barrel of that Bushmaster not even in public sight, and fire away. They shot without knowing any of their victims. The 10 slain included whites, blacks, a Hispanic and an Indian. They were male and female, old and young, single and married.

But why did the snipers kill?

Money, for one. Consider the letter to police left at the next-to-last attack in Ashland, Virginia. The letter writers had stolen a platinum Visa card. They wanted police to reactivate it with $10 million they could freely access, as the letter put it, "at any ATM worldwide." That was the only way, the letter said, for "the killing" to stop. The letter provided the card's 16-digit account number, its four-digit personal identification number, the activation and expiration dates and the name of the card's real owner.

Why they thought they could just access the money wherever they went and evade the law is a good question. Perhaps they didn't think about that. Or about how likely it was that they would be given $10 million in the first place. Yet the letter makes clear they thought they could profit from "the killing."

Still, money probably wasn't the only motivation. During the weekend, the Associated Press reported a theory attributed to authorities that centers on the life lived by Muhammad, who by all accounts was a huge influence upon his teenage companion. Accordingly, Muhammad's life was one of such repeated failure that he decided to exact revenge upon ordinary people who had found what he hadn't: "meaning in the reassuring routines of their daily lives." Such as pumping gas, mowing lawns, shopping, etc.

That could be, just as it also could be that Muhammad's religion played a role. He converted to Islam in 1985. You can be a faithful Muslim and love America, but Muhammad was involved in the 1990s in the Nation of Islam, which is notoriously antagonistic toward Jews and also America. After the attacks of September 11, Muhammad expressed sympathy for the radical Islamic terrorists who carried out those acts.

Still, I would caution against reading too much into the influence of Muhammad's Islam. After all, what is to be made of someone who seems seriously to say, as was written in the note left in Ashland, "Call me God." (Call that the religion of Self.) We are dealing here with egos needing to feed on demonstrations of power and control over others. Recall that warning twice made in letters to police: "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time."

Profit, revenge, terror, power and control: Those are among the classic motivations of serial killers. It isn't surprising to see their presence in the case at hand. As was true last fall when the terrorists struck, the nation has witnessed a terrible demonstration of man's capacity for evil.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.