If Adolf Eichmann’s “absence of critical thinking” led Hannah Arendt to her famed conclusions about the “banality of evil,” then John Muhammad and his sidekick Malvo provide supporting evidence. Their leisurely death-sweep of America demonstrates a lack of focus more difficult to deal with than any hard-etched ideology. Barring some further evidence of deeply rooted intent, some formed philosophy, their casual commitment to homicide also represents far more of what has happened to America than the hard-core beliefs of, say, an al-Qaeda. It may be that they have no hard-core beliefs, that they are members of a vast militia floating on the social scene, whose anonymity makes them as dangerous as they are ubiquitous.
It was this formlessness, plus a generous dose of cupidity on the part of authorities, that made them so difficult to catch. Instructive is the swiftness with which the “task force” of federal state and local officers attached themselves to one eyewitness who gave them the celebrated “white box truck.” Another witness would later help them morph the box truck into a “white van.” A growing class of “profilers” imprinted the belief that the perpetrator was a white male, acting alone, an angered loser in search of recognition. This made it simple for two black men to drive unmolested from slaying scenes in a dark blue sedan, perhaps inconvenienced only by the long lines of traffic produced by police roadblocks scanning the public highways for a white-truck-van.
Lord knows they tried to get caught, unconsciously and otherwise. Time again police observing traffic violations would “run” the New Jersey license tag on their 1990 car, but the car wasn’t stolen and no one connected with it was wanted. Blissfully, they drove on into the murderous night. To stop the car, and search it, and find the Bushmaster gun, would violate a constitutional right. To stop it at all would evoke tsk-tsk’s from the racial profiling watchdogs.
They left messages, tarot cards with scrawls on them and a hand-written note demanding a large amount of money be deposited in an offshore account responsive to a stolen credit card. There is even a police recording now at large in which one, presumed to be Muhammad, is calling the Rockville police department, giving the secret code, “God is here…” and trying vainly to deliver a message to the protesting operator who insists that that department is not handling sniper business and wouldn’t the caller like the sniper hotline to call instead? The caller says he has tried several times to call and has been rebuffed each time and finally hangs up. The FBI director says he is going to review the training of the phone bank operators elsewhere who manned and womanned the tip-line phones.
Sufficient to say, it was a news media leak that caught the alleged snipers. The night the names and car description were being ladled out by the task force, it was the media that monitored an all-points police bulletin, picked up the vital car license tag number and, without the imprimatur of the task force, broadcast that information. A trucker heard it, saw the car in a Maryland rest stop, and that was that.
There followed the unseemly rush to adjudication, the jockeying between county prosecutors and the federal government to file charges, murder and attempted murder on the local scene, violation of the Hobbs Act on the federal level. Hobbs being an obscure anti-labor-racketeering law forbidding murder involving extortion to which the death penalty was appended years later. The theory being that the demand for money, though apparently a sniper afterthought, would shoehorn the accused pair into that law’s purview. Critics say no, to pursue this tack would give the defendants a good double jeopardy defense against the various state indictments.
Confusion seeps as far south as Montgomery, Alabama, where police said at first a victim was killed with a handgun of caliber different from the Bushmaster .223. Now, amend that, Montgomery says it was the same gun and there must have been a third shooter. Well, maybe not. Maybe it was just Muhammad and his pal.
Other precincts weigh in, from Baton Rouge to Tacoma, with plausible cases to tie to the pair. It’s a fair guess that other departments are reviewing their cold case files.
A wondering public views the “sniper case” with a sense of unease. It has shown that the childhood belief that police can protect the law-abiding is a childhood belief. That in a mobile, stratified, racially-diverse society, this protection is a chimera bound in yellow crime tape. The loss of neighborhood, of town, and the multiplicity of jurisdiction, has compounded the difficulty of a priori enforcement. As written during the height of the killing, “the elusiveness of the sniper tells a quiet story of mutual dependence and vulnerability that should be told and retold…” Instead, however, we are leaning forward into the fray over prosecution.
Burke had it a little wrong. All that is really necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do too many things — and none of them really well. And Arendt was probably right in her assessment of the banality of evil; the greatest evildoers are those who don’t remember because they never gave the matter a thought.