The Beltway Sniper and the Media

by Patrick J. Buchanan – October 30, 2002

During the 23 days the Beltway Sniper was shooting 13 people and murdering 10 in the D.C. suburbs, the press – especially the cable news networks – got it wrong … all wrong.

Their “profilers” almost all thought the sniper was an angry white male, driving a white van, acting alone, a clever killer who knew the D.C. area so well he must live here.

None of this, it seems, was true. There was not one, but two snipers. Neither lived here. Neither knew the area. They were not white. They did not drive a white van. Far from being clever, they were dumb as a post. How did the media get it wrong?

Having spent several afternoons at Camp Rockville, let me enter a plea bargain. The profilers we used on MSNBC were ex-FBI or police profilers or private investigators who had spent careers on similar cases. Their conclusions were not only reasonable, they were identical to those of the profilers for the “task force.”

Moreover, it was the task force, based on witness testimony, that put out the word on the white vans and “box trucks” that misled the media and caused police to let the killers slip through their roadblocks. Were it not for cable’s broadcast of the leaked number of the New Jersey license plate on the Chevy Caprice, which led to the arrest of the suspects hours later at a rest stop off a Maryland highway, the snipers might still be murdering people.

In the end, the suspects were responsible for their own arrests. Had they not taunted police by dropping tarot cards, leaving written messages at murder scenes with their fingerprints on them, phoning the Rockville police headquarters and a priest in Ashland, Va., to take credit for a murder in Montgomery, Ala., the case might not have been solved.

Once the suspects took credit for that fatal shooting at a Montgomery liquor store, the FBI traced a fingerprint from the crime scene to one the INS got from an illegal alien in Washington state who used the nickname “sniper.” Then the bureau tied the teenager to the Gulf War veteran John Allen Muhammad, and Muhammad to the Caprice. The final chase was on.

At this writing, nothing is publicly known about the motives of the alleged serial killers, but it seems reasonable that in the phrase “serial killer,” we may find a piece of the puzzle.

For both of the accused, John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17, are losers. Muhammad comes from a broken family. He had failed repeatedly in business, got into scrapes with the law, failed at two marriages and had fallen so far that he was living in a Christian homeless shelter in Washington state. That he had changed his name and joined the Nation Of Islam would testify to his alienation from the society into which he had been born.

John Lee Malvo was a teenage drifter from Jamaica, who, with his mother, became a stowaway who made it into the United States and eluded deportation. From childhood, he has been living with his mother and apparently took to Muhammad, whom he met in the shelter, as a surrogate father. Muhammad would introduce Malvo to friends and family members as his son or stepson. Apparently, the two were trying to recreate in one another familial bonds they had lost, or had never truly known: son-to-father and father-to-son.

What did they hate, and why did they hate so much that they would select victims at random, at gas stations, malls, on street corners, in buses, at school – men, women, black, white, Hispanic, ranging in age from 13 to 72? There seems no method in their selection of victims, other than opportunism.

Late in the murder spree, they did demand that $10 million be put in a Visa account for which they had a stolen credit card. But this testifies more to stupidity than greed.

If one had to project a motive upon them, it might be this: In a society that celebrates celebrity above all, they were seeking to enter the Hall of Fame in the only category where they stood a chance – as criminals and serial killers. Now they have made it. And with our hunger for celebrities, even Charles Manson celebrities, the pair will become better known than almost all of their contemporaries who chose to live decent, honorable and fruitful lives.

If they sought fame, and would settle for notoriety, who is to say they did not succeed? Prediction: Muhammad’s trial will make him as famous as McVeigh. All America will now know his name. And 20 years hence, convict John Malvo, now reformed, will be discussing serial killers with the new generation’s Larry King. Such is the nature of the celebrity-intoxicated society in which we live.