BALTIMORE — How evil is John Allen Muhammad? Consider a piece of evidence that came to light in testimony on October 29. When Muhammad was arrested, he had in his possession a list of five Baltimore County schools, presumably selected as apt targets close to highways. The one that jumped out at me as I read the report was Campfield Early Learning Center, first because my girlfriend teaches there (though we hadn’t yet moved to this area when the sniper rampage was going on), and second because of the children that the snipers were presumably scoping as targets. Campfield’s student body is made up entirely of three- through five-year-olds.
Muhammad was of course sentenced to death yesterday. He’d been convicted of two counts of murder (for one of 10 deaths) and one count of terrorism, and was the first to be convicted under Virginia’s terrorism law, enacted after September 11th. Harjeet Singh, who met Muhammad and Malvo at the YMCA in Bellingham, Washington, told the Washington Post last year that Muhammad believed the 9/11 attacks “should have happened a lot sooner”; at least two other people in the Bellingham area report Muhammad speaking favorably of the attacks. His bin Ladenist sympathies have faded deep into the background of the media narrative on the story. Soon after Muhammad was arrested, the Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a press release declaring “There is no indication that this case is related to Islam or Muslims,” and “therefore ask[ed] journalists and media commentators to avoid speculation based on stereotyping or prejudice.”
While it’s true that Muhammad’s motivation was not strictly religious — in his harebrained scheme, the shootings would be leverage in the extortion of $10 million from the U.S. government — surely the news media have gone above and beyond the call of duty in leaving the intersection of Muhammad’s religious life and pathology unexamined. That’s no surprise: An honest look at evil is difficult even when it doesn’t directly challenge the received wisdom that American Muslims are never radicalized; what would be truly remarkable is if the mainstream media had produced a view of Muhammad from that angle.
When the news broke yesterday, reporters fanned out for man-on-the-street-reaction. ABC 2’s correspondent at the Inner Harbor in downtown Baltimore couldn’t find anyone who thought executing Muhammad was a bad idea. (The correspondent in the D.C. suburb of Rockville, ironically near the nexus of the shootings, said he was able to find some anti-death penalty voices, though none appeared on camera.) The only point of disagreement, said the Inner Harbor reporter, was whether five hours of deliberation was long enough — some said the jurors should have taken more time, but others said they should have been done much sooner.
Five hours or five days, it hardly matters when the execution won’t come for another six or seven years. There is ample reason for due process in death penalty cases to include plenty of appeals; there is no reason for the process to take as long as it does (and Virginia is actually on the speedy side, as states go). Among other things, it may give ambitious prosecutors in Montgomery County, Maryland, the time to build a kabuki-theater case against Muhammad, as some of them are talking about doing — as if being dragged through more days in the courtroom is what the victims’ families need. They’re already waiting on the ongoing trial of Muhammad’s young accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, whose defense is pursuing a long-shot insanity plea (they argue that Malvo was brainwashed by Muhammad).
There are many good reasons to put a man such as Muhammad to death — justice, retribution, deterrence, “closure” — but listening to the press conference that the jurors gave yesterday, I got the sense that one reason trumped all others: fear. Dennis J. Bowman had voted for life in prison on Friday, and thought over the weekend about his choice. Muhammad had fashioned a plastic spoon into a knife while in Prince William County Jail, and thinking about that and Muhammad’s Army training, Bowman concluded, “What we have here is a homegrown MacGyver.… Somewhere down the road, even if it takes 20 years, he’s going to find an opportunity to hurt someone else,” in prison or not. You could see the gears moving in Muhammad’s head, Bowman said, and as the juror spoke it reminded me of nothing so much as the terrified scenery-chewing of Donald Pleasance, as Dr. Sam Loomis in Halloween, describing the monster Michael Myers: “purely and simply… evil.”