For the past week or more, I have had a question banging around in my head while reading news reports about the bizarre trial of John Allen Muhammad in Montgomery County, Md.
It’s hard to describe how people in the greater Washington, D.C., area feel about Muhammad and his deadly campaign of sniper attacks back in 2002. The siege affected people getting gas, dropping off kids at school, buying groceries and standing around waiting for a bus or a car ride on the way to work. The trial peaked last week with the emotional and damning testimony of Lee Boyd Malvo, the young man that Muhammad trained and called his “son.” Now, Muhammad has been found guilty of six counts of first-degree murder.
So here is the question that has been haunting me: “Why?” As in “Why did he do it?”
Anyone who takes an introduction to journalism class is familiar with the old wire-service mantra “who, what, when, where, why and how.” Yes, it is hard to achieve journalistic perfection while trying to answer these questions, let alone jam them into the lead paragraph of a story. But it is good to try.
In this case, we are dealing with acts of public terror in the age right after 9/11 by a man who took the name Muhammad. That makes it even harder to avoid the “why” question. Yet few of the news reports seemed interested in the crucial question of motive.
Now please understand that I am not saying that this killer’s actions can somehow be blamed on Islam. In fact, I am saying the opposite. The Nation of Islam is not part of mainstream Islam, let alone moderate Islam. Yet very few stories — at least those that I saw — mentioned how or why Muhammad joined the Nation of Islam. If you were a mainstream Muslim, how would you feel about that silence? This may have been one of those cases when journalists needed to mention the Nation of Islam in order to disconnect other Muslims from the story. After all, The Washington Post did report:
Muhammad introduced Malvo to the Nation of Islam and spoke to him about race and socioeconomic disparities. “The white man is the devil,” Malvo said, summing up Muhammad’s thinking.
So what was the motive? Of the newspapers that I read, the Baltimore Sun seemed the most interested in this question. Clearly, there were personal reasons and ties to a broken marriage and family. But how, precisely, did that link to sniper attacks and then to larger plans to blow up school buses and hospitals that work with children?
Was money the main motive? The Sun did note:
Malvo testified that Muhammad sought to extort $10 million from the government and use it to create a community in Canada to train 140 children to replicate his violent scheme across the United States in a bid to destroy the economy and foment revolution.
Yet here is the quote that haunts me, taken from a Sun report by Andrea F. Siegel and Julie Scharper during the heart of the trial. What precisely did this mean?
Malvo, who said Muhammad had been instructing him in Washington state for months at firing ranges by day and in anti-Americanism over their single daily meal, said he was devoted to Muhammad. The man had fed him, clothed him and brought him illegally from Antigua to the United States.
What precisely is “anti-Americanism”? There may be a religion ghost in there. There may not be. But I, for one, wanted to know more about the “why?” question in that old journalism mantra.