Let us assume — as virtually all of the news coverage today is doing — that John Allen Muhammad and his unfortunate stepson, arrested yesterday, are in fact the persons behind the sniping attacks that have terrorized the Washington, D.C. area for weeks. A story that muscled the War On Terror (Iraq division) off the front page then turns out to have been another tentacle of the same troubling story.
According to early reports, Muhammad — known as John Allen Williams before his conversion to Islam and a corresponding name change — was sympathetic to the 9/11 terrorists and more generally to the jihad declared against the United States by Islamic fundamentalists halfway around the world. This would put him in the same company with virtually every other name that has come to our attention in the past year, real or alleged, as having wanted to wage war on America: John Walker Lindh, Robert Reid, Jose Padilla, the various “jihad wannabes” arrested in recent months from Buffalo, Portland, and Seattle.
None of these people came from Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan or any Arab or Middle Eastern country; Reid is British, the others American. And unlike the above-mentioned fantasy holy war dreamers, Muhammad may have taken his hatreds an additional, deadly step, in the process providing a handy illustration of only one of the ways in which a determined terrorist can rack up innocent victims on American soil and bring one or another part of our country a our standstill in a way Dubya’s bloated military and liberty-crushing Homeland Defense cannot possibly prevent.
I emphasize “may” because there is also the apparent matter of Muhammad’s link — through an on-scene fingerprint apparently belonging to his stepson — to the murder of one person and attempted murder of another during an attempted liquor store robbery in Montgomery, Alabama a few months back. This suggests that Muhammad’s is not the warrior discipline of a trained Al- Qaeda operative, but closer to the psychopathology of your basic, garden-variety serial killer, with his religion and the news of the world merely suggesting a focus for his rampage. (In what must surely make some all-time top ten list for irony, the hunt for evidence in the Montgomery killing for a time focused on a Perry County, Ala. shooting range named Ground Zero.)
Without the Montgomery link, Muhammad might still be killing people; it was his mention of the crime in a call to police, combined with the on-scene fingerprint, that led investigators to the pair. A trained terrorist wouldn’t be making phone calls at all, let alone dragging along a teenaged son. (Given the isolation of a nomadic lifestyle and the obedience demanded by fathers in Islamic households, I’m not at all ready, absent more information, to assume the 17-year-old is culpable as an independent adult.)
But the details of who Muhammad is, and who he could have easily been, lead in a number of troubling directions. Firstly, they buttress the largely evidence-free cases against the Buffalo, Portland, and Seattle arrestees — all of whom appear guilty of nothing more than the same sort of survivalist fantasies that paramilitary types engage in every weekend, squeezing off a few rounds at the local gravel pit or on a ranch, except that these folks are neither white nor Christian. The government can now play the “what if” card in a way likely to convince a jury (if the cases are ever even allowed a jury), even though our legal system isn’t supposed to convict people based on what they might like to do, but what they’ve already done.
A second troubling note is that the “sniper” case is likely to justify further racial and especially religious profiling. Somewhere, as you read this, the list of Muslims who know how to handle firearms is already probably being massaged. But just as central to the threat Muhammad posed was his 15 years in the Army, including Gulf War service. (And, of course, it was inevitable that the sniper was a guy; we scarcely even comment on that, it’s so completely taken for granted.) It’s astonishing how much violence, up to and including serial killings, is inflicted on our society by men who went through the military, were taught at a young age both how to kill and that in some circumstances it’s a wonderful thing to do, and through wartime service either discovered they had a taste for it or were emotionally crippled by it.
An enormous amount of violence — against self, against spouses and children, against innocents caught in the crossfire — can and does result. For both Muslims and military personnel, an additional pathology is needed for the person to snap — more, perhaps, for Islam, since that religion is neither intrinsically violent nor associated (usually) with PTSD. John Allen Muhammad never had sniper training, but he — like millions of other current and former military personnel — had very good training in the art of killing, and he spent 15 years steeped in that culture. That, too, is a form of religion.
We rarely consider how much harm — er, collateral damage — is inflicted on our society by our being more militarized than any other industrialized country outside Israel. In large part, we’re oblivious because it’s all done in the name of our country. And this brings us to another disturbing element of the Muhammad case: the vast disconnect between the prosperity and benign patriotism our leaders assume among most all of us, and the much grimmer realities among America’s poor, its immigrants, its working classes. The idea that someone born or even living in America isn’t automatically grateful beyond words, let alone that someone could actually come to rationally despise our country, seems inconceivable on Capitol Hill. But one can walk only a few blocks in any direction to find neighborhoods where the view is very different.
One of the more chilling side stories to the sniper investigation was the fate of the two men arrested outside Richmond last week for being, in one investigator’s words, “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Both men — one Mexican, one Central American — were lacking the proper papers, and thus, even though they turned out to have no connection to the sniper case, they promptly had deportation proceedings initiated against them by the INS.
The spectre of minding your own business until, one day, the police — by mistake — seize you and then — never mind the mistake — ship you away turns out to be critical to the Muhammad case for two reasons. The first is fairly straightforward; a number of the shootings happened in neighborhoods heavily populated by immigrants, and eyewitnesses became terrified to pass along to police information as to what they saw for fear that they, too, became deportation fodder.
Beyond impeding the investigation — and perhaps leaving Muhammad free for an extra few days (and murders) — such a mindset is also a glimpse into that Other America, the America so near yet far from our halls of power, the one where our government is something to be feared and you live your life with your head down, praying only that the government (which is to say, the legal system in all its forms) doesn’t notice you.
There’s an awful lot of that in this country, and not just among immigrants or among the communities that have borne the brunt of the War On Drugs. With the D.C. sniper and Iraq both off the front pages, perhaps now news coverage will notice our economy again. While we were looking elsewhere, for example, three studies in the last month announced that: even by rigorous government definitions (meant to minimize the totals), poverty in the U.S. continues to grow (the Census Bureau); the numbers of us without health insurance increased by another 1.4 million last year (Census Bureau again); and the numbers receiving food stamps went up 24,000 in only a month (USDA). There is, to be sure, plenty of patriotism among the poor, but there’s also plenty of despair, and plenty of keep-your-head-down resentment. The notion that our government is benevolent and everyone gets a fair shake in our country is pretty rare among people who feel they never got any shake at all.
With the numerous cases in recent months of U.S. citizens apparently harboring anti-American jihad fantasies — even though such cases are, numerically, an inconsequential threat to our country thus far — the possibilities for additional curtailment of civil liberties are never far away. And, thus, we risk creating the domestic equivalent of what we’re already creating overseas through our failed War On Terror strategy: our government, by its own heavy-handedness, inspiring far more would-be terrorists than it eliminates.
If prevention overseas means alleviating the poverty in which desperation breeds, and cutting off the access to weaponry with which would-be terrorists might inflict mayhem, well, at home we have more and more poverty (though it’s not at a Third World level — yet), and goodness knows we have the weapons. All that’s missing at home is the motive that, overseas, has been provided by political repression and immersion in an apocalyptic thread of religion.
So far, already, there’s been increasing repression in Muslim and non-white communities, and enough people motivated by their religion to produce several cases of sloppy fantasy. One of those cases has now left ten people dead and would still be continuing save the sloppiness of calling and bragging about a liquor store job. What this suggests is two things: first, that a domestic War On Terror is every bit as unwinnable through brute force as its overseas equivalent; and second, if there are fantasizing individuals or groups out there that take their mission seriously, we’re in big, big trouble.