Death Penalty for Mass Killer
Deaglán de Bréadún
Listening to the details of the execution by lethal injection of John Allen Muhammad, the Washington Sniper, was pretty horrific. Thank goodness we have gotten rid of the death penalty here and that it is part of the conditions of membership of the European Union: definitely a plus, whatever way you voted on Lisbon.
It’s not that the Sniper’s actions weren’t equally horrific, if not more so, as the people he killed were totally innocent. But it is one of the marks of distinction between civilisation and the underworld that human life is sacred, even the life of a mass killer.
After all, the killers of Bobby Kennedy and John Lennon were not executed: they are still in jail as far as I know. What this guy did was utterly appalling and clearly there was little sympathy for him in any quarter. But in this writer’s view, executing the perpetrator compounds the offence. It may provide a sense of satisfaction to some and assuage the desire for vengeance but I prefer to adhere to the Fifth Commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill.
As I listened to the radio this morning, I could recall my own sense of vulnerability on arriving in Washington at the time to cover the story. I was at the United Nations where the impending invasion of Iraq was top of the agenda but things were moving slowly there so I was asked to go to the US capital where John Allen Muhammad and his young companion were dominating the news. The notion that two madmen are careening around, shooting people at will is somewhat unnerving when you are on the ground. If anyone is interested, here is a news feature I wrote at the time:-
EQUAL OPPORTUNITY TO DIE
Three weeks of terror and trauma culminated in the arrest of two suspects – and America relaxes again. Deaglán de Bréadún reports from Washington
Conrad Johnson was a family man. He played football with his two young sons and the other kids too. He was the only dad in the neighbourhood who would pick up a ball and toss it around with the little guys. It must have been a thrill, an affirming experience, for the boys to play ball with a big man, more than six foot tall. Some day I’m gonna be big and strong like him, you can hear them say.
Conrad was a responsible parent. When the sniper shootings started in Maryland, the area where he lived, he kept his kids in the house. No sense in taking risks with your children’s lives. But Conrad, he had to go to work. An immigrant from Jamaica, nobody was throwing rolls of dollar-bills or gold watches at a black man like him.
Last Tuesday morning, he set out as usual for his job as a bus driver, with a start-time of 6 a.m. One imagines him stepping quietly through the house, so as not to wake his wife or the two boys. Clearly a conscientious employee, he arrived in good time at the starting-point for the buses of the Ride On company which operates in Maryland. They are modest, single-decker vehicles, blue on the outside, with blue seats inside. The customers are mostly black or Hispanic and the notices above their heads show that they do not attract the interest of advertising executives. No L’Oreal, no Prado, but mainly public-service appeals to have a check-up for cancer, or a simple poster with the American flag, recalling the sacrifices of “citizens, military, police and fire personnel” who lost their lives on September 11th, 2001.
Conrad Everton Johnson was standing at the top of the steps into the bus, unaware that the last minutes of his life were ticking away. Just below his feet there was a yellow sign in English and Spanish, Watch your step; Pise con ciudado. It’s a narrow entrance, so anyone planning to shoot Conrad would probably have had to get in quite close. So it may be the case that he saw his attacker before he was shot. The main suspect is African-American and what Johnson thought if he saw another black man shooting at him can only be imagined.
A world gone mad. After nearly three weeks of sniper shootings without a suspect, the media were at the seventh level of frenzy. Conrad was taken to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead. Instead of withholding the name until relatives were notified, somebody leaked it to the media. His name went out on the news before his wife and children – not to mention his large extended family – knew he was dead. The crime scene was sealed off as police searched for precious clues, a footprint maybe or a spent cartridge. Six New York reporters allegedly scaled the fence and may face charges for entering the area without permission.
It’s tempting to speculate what would have happened if Conrad was white, but that’s another day’s work. The police, through Montgomery County Chief Charles A. Moose, had been sending conciliatory messages to the sniper through the media and this latest killing was a crushing disappointment. If citizens in a sleepy dormitory zone like this could not go about their business without getting shot, what was the point of a police force at all?
Six of the 10 killings were in Montgomery County. A cab-driver of Asian origin, Premkumar Walekar, was filling his car at a petrol station when the sniper struck. His daughter saw the report on television, recognised the American flag in the back of the car and went to the hospital to identify the body. The sniper was, as Chief Moose pointed out, an equal opportunity killer who attacked “all races, all genders, all professions”.
We have become sadly accustomed to residents of the Washington area, not to mention outsiders, “taking a pop” at their President. The moody loner nursing an obscure grievance against the inhabitant of the White House is a familiar phenomenon.
The lives of ordinary folk are at risk in robberies and muggings but, however terrible, these killings are at least rational to the extent that financial gain is meant to accrue to the attacker. But who could have a grudge or grievance against Sarah Ramos or Sonny Buchanan or Linda Franklin or Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera? This was when the armchair experts came into their own and some of them seemed to be permanently parked in the TV studios. It became an endless parade of criminologists, lawyers, suspect-profilers, ballistics analysts, child psychologists, clergy, history professors and terrorism consultants. Truly has it been said that “an expert is a guy from somewhere else, carrying a briefcase”. At least one network was running 24-hour coverage and, in the absence of hard news, the time just had to be filled.
While no society is immune, the US seems to be peculiarly prone to mass hysteria. Back in the late 1930s, the actor Orson Welles caused widespread panic with his War of the Worlds radio broadcast, which many took to be a genuine report of a Martian invasion. The anthrax scare was another example of how a tragic but still limited number of deaths seemed to paralyse a nation in emotional terms. The danger of being killed by a car was many times greater than getting shot by the Washington Sniper but it was the latter who terrorised the public imagination.
“Why is it such a big story in Europe?” an American colleague inquired.
Perhaps there is something primaeval and visceral about the idea of being shot in the street for no apparent reason by a total stranger. This was blind destiny, the fickle finger of fate at its most malignant. In a Christian culture, we are constantly warned, Ye know neither the day nor the hour. To the residents of Washington and its environs, the sniper was bringing this point home. No wonder he said, in a Tarot card left at a crime scene, “Dear Policeman. I am God.”
What do we know about the chief suspect and his wretched sidekick? Someone who knew them rightly described their lives as “chaotic”. From the jumble of information emerging, it was possible to elicit that John Allen Muhammad had changed his name from Williams when he converted to some home-made version of Islam. His life was a crazy cacophony of broken marriages and battles for child custody including alleged abduction, a failed attempt to start a karate school, a barring order from an ex-wife, and a series of shifting residences including a shelter for the homeless. He also served as a soldier in the Gulf War, an experience hardly likely to enhance respect for the sanctity of human life.
Then he teamed up with the boy, at first thought to be his stepson, but in fact not a relative in the formal sense, although Muhammad appears to have been involved with his mother at some stage. Whatever he may or may not have done to others, John Lee Malvo is a sad case. He came to the US from Jamaica, the same place as Conrad Johnson, at the age of 10, with a group of illegal immigrants. Strictly speaking, he should have been deported, but somehow managed to escape the net. His short life seems to have been one of aimless drifting and when he eventually landed at the front door of Bellingham High School, on the west coast, he had no transcripts or documentation from any previous institution.
Intelligent but disturbed, he seems to have chosen the 41-year-old Muhammad as his role-model and surrogate father-figure. A widely-distributed photograph shows the pair of them smiling and happy, for all the world like any proud father and admiring son at ease in each other’s company.
In an uncanny echo of the film Badlands they roamed around in their blue Chevy, choosing victims at random.
The events of September 11th, which caused such trauma for everyone, may have finally unhinged Muhammad and his youthful associate. At the police briefing in Montgomery County on Thursday night, there were constant references to “9-11″ and other evidence also suggests it may well provide an important background to the case. Like the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, it appears that Muhammad felt a particular resentment and bitterness towards the US government and that he had expressed some admiration for the “9-11″ hijackers.
Apparently destined for a life of obscurity, he may find some macabre consolation now in his worldwide fame.
The story swamped the moves towards war in Iraq and rudely shunted the US mid-term elections off the front page.
Indeed, it is likely that many people in the Washington area would have been afraid to go and vote if they felt the sniper were still at large.
The police performance in the case was mixed. There was a sense coming across that too many agencies and groups were involved, with consequent reluctance to take risks by releasing information.
The full details of the car used by the suspects were revealed by the media, resulting in the tip-off that led to the arrests. The low point of the investigation was when two hapless illegal immigrants were arrested by mistake, which probably frightened off other illegals who might have had valuable information. But in the end, the system worked – too late for the 13 victims, 10 dead and three seriously wounded, but hopefully in time to save other lives.
The good news is that Hallowe’en is no longer in freeze-frame mode and parents throughout the US (because nobody knew where the killer would strike next) can with reasonable assurance allow their children to go trick-or-treating, knowing that all the scary monsters will just be other kids wearing masks, or figments of television fantasy. But Conrad Johnson won’t be trick-or-treating with the kids, this or any other year. He is gone to another place where one hopes he is getting better treatment than in this one. Meanwhile, after a life of disturbance and drift, John Allen Muhammad has finally come to anchor. “I know where I’m at,” he told the magistrate as he was being charged on Thursday night. “I know why I’m here.”