What do you think, what do you feel, when you hear this name -- John Allen Muhammad?
If you live in the Washington, D.C., area, the name calls back a stunning array of emotions and images. The sniper siege made ordinary people -- with good reason -- afraid to pump gas, to take children to school, to wait for a bus and a host of other everyday tasks.
Now that you've heard the name, let me ask another question: Based on what you remember about the mainstream media coverage, what do you know about the sniper's motives? In other words, why did he do it?
Well, while the rest of the nation was struggling to grasp the "why" in the "who, what, when, where, why and how" of Fort Hood, folks inside the Beltway were wrestling with their thoughts and emotions about the execution of Muhammad. It was hard not to to link the two somehow, whether that linkage is valid or not. That's my point. The cases have little or nothing to do with one another, few if any connecting themes, but how would you know that?
Why did he do it? In one execution story, the Washington Post notes:
What did it teach us? What did we learn from that awful autumn?
Not much, says Police Chief Charlie T. Deane of Prince William County, where Dean H. Meyers, 53, stepped from his Mazda at a Sunoco on Oct. 9, 2002, and was felled by a bullet to the head -- the ninth of 13 victims shot that month, the seventh of 10 who were killed.
"The sad thing is, the biggest lesson from this is that two fools with a rifle can put an entire region of the country in a state of absolute fear," Deane says.
It might have been anyone in the cross hairs of that .223-caliber Bushmaster in those 22 days and nights when millions cowered from a roving, unseen menace -- when ballfields and school yards fell still; jittery motorists squatted like baseball catchers to fill their gas tanks; ubiquitous white box trucks loomed suspicious. ...
The stalkers were elusive; the attacks, indiscriminate.
What did the attacks mean to Muhammad? Why did he think that he did what he did?
That's where the problems began, for the mainstream press. I have always been troubled that reporters were afraid to discuss the sniper's name and his faith.
This week, James Taranto summed up my concerns perfectly in one of his "Best of the Web Today" essays at the Wall Street Journal. Click here to read that, with lots of helpful links.
Here's the bottom line: Reporters needed to talk about the precise nature of Muhammad's faith in order to separate him from mainstream Muslims. It was terrible, cruel even, to leave readers with his name and his evil acts and say, "That's that."
Here's a chunk of what Taranto had to say, while thinking about press coverage of the sniper and then Fort Hood:
We got to thinking about the similarities with the Fort Hood story -- but then we went back and read some of the contemporaneous coverage of Muhammad's crimes and were struck by the differences.
For one, although Muhammad and Fort Hood suspect Nidal Hasan were both Muslims, Muhammad was a convert who had joined the Nation of Islam, an eccentric American sect that focuses on racial (black) rather than religious supremacy. Most of the reports on Muhammad's execution omit the Nation of Islam connection, leaving the impression, among those who've forgotten it, that Muhammad is just another Muslim. ...
"I am God," unlike Hasan's reported exclamation, "Allahu akbar" ("God is great"), is not something that Muslims normally say. Yet although the connection between Muhammad's religion and his crimes was much less clear than appears to be the case at Fort Hood, our cursory review of the 2002 press coverage suggests that reporters back then ... were more straightforward in dealing with it. And although Muhammad was a veteran -- and had, unlike Hasan, actually seen combat -- journalists do not seem to have rushed to fit the story to the usual crazy-veteran narrative, as they have been doing with Hasan.
Some have detected in the Fort Hood coverage a return to a pre-9/11 mindset, and there is some truth to this. In particular, the left-liberal tendency to stereotype servicemen and veterans as psychopaths, suckers and victims is a return to form. But the bending over backward to explain away the role of religious fanaticism in the Fort Hood massacre is, it seems to us, something new -- something distinctly post-9/11, or post-post-9/11.
In other words, a lack of press information about the beliefs of these men is not good for mainstream Muslims. In order to separate these men and their beliefs from those of other Muslims, one must be willing to discuss those beliefs in factual terms, to the degree that this is possible. It's impossible, in the long run, to defend the beliefs and lives of mainstream Muslims without discussing Islam and the conflicts inside that complex, global faith -- even if that means talking about the Nation of Islam and how its non-mainstream beliefs may or may not have affected someone like Muhammad.
Silence does not help. Ignorance does not protect anyone.
Let me ask the journalists and academics who read this blog: Does that make sense?