Dec 1, 2003
The Washington, D.C., area sniper trial ended in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with the suspect, John Allen Muhammad, being sentenced to death.
Muhammad didn't make a great effort to plead innocence. In the first days of the trial, when he was acting as his own lawyer, Muhammad said that he was at the scene during one of the shootings. His accused accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, who is being tried separately, admitted to the shootings and testified that he was with Muhammad when they happened.
Of course, the random shooting of people at public places is an utterly heinous act. But these shootings have been used by state authorities and politicians as a justification and an advertisement for the death penalty, that is, the organized killing of people by the state. And that's also heinous.
From the beginning, officials acted like they were out for blood. "We're going to go to Virginia, where Mr. Muhammad is going to be killed." These bloodthirsty words came from none other than U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft even before Muhammad was found guilty. Although most of the shootings Muhammad and Malvo are accused of took place in Maryland, the trials were moved to Virginia because the courts in Virginia hand down death sentences much more easily and more frequently – including against minors, as Malvo was at the time of the shootings.
Obviously, the death penalty doesn't deter individuals who commit such crimes. The prosecutors themselves have repeatedly said that they don't know the exact reasons why Muhammad may have decided to shoot people at random. Muhammad's former wife testified that after Muhammad came back from the first Persian Gulf War of 1991, his business and family life started to crumble, and things spiraled down from there. The reason, or reasons, for this can be many things, including traumatic experiences Muhammad may have had during the war.
The fact that no effort was made to understand Muhammad's motives shows clearly that putting him to death is nothing more than a mere act of revenge – and that's an inhumane, barbaric act like the sniper shootings themselves. In fact it's worse. For one can argue that an individual like Muhammad may have gone insane under the pressures of a stressful life or certain traumatic experiences. But how can one explain the organized revenge killing of human beings by the state? Especially a state that sends young people off to wars – wars known to create all kinds of mental problems in participants – and provides no help when these people come back and have to deal with these problems.
No matter how horrible the sniper shootings were, executing the accused is not a solution. The only solution is to create a more humane society where individuals, who find themselves trapped in desperate situations, can get help – so that they don't turn on other human beings.
That would be a society that respects and values human life. The very fact that state officials and politicians consider it a career move to promote a revenge killing is proof that we don't live in that kind of society.