Last night, a particularly scary period in Washington, DC officially ended with the execution of sniper John Allen Muhammad, who along with his partner, Lee Malvo, was responsible for the deaths of at least 10 people in this area. (Muhammad and Malvo are also thought responsible for deaths in several other states.)
I remember the fall of 2002 and how gripped by panic everyone (including me) was. No one knew where or when the snipers would strike next. I (like many others) would put the gas pump in my car's tank while crouched low to the ground and quickly head back to my car to wait until it was finished and I could start the exercise again. I was at the Falls Church Home Depot the day before Linda Franklin was murdered in the parking lot. No one at that point imagined someone would be gunned down after a shopping spree. And we all lived in fear that the snipers might never make a mistake and might continue their spree for weeks, months, even years.
When Muhammad was sentenced to death, my sometimes-shaky faith in the justice system was secured briefly. I had worried that his case might be turned over on some technicality, or that one juror might not believe that even someone clearly capable of the violence he masterminded was deserving of death. And that concern reappeared earlier this week, when I heard that Muhammad's attorneys, in a last-ditch plea to save their client's life even briefly, alleged that he was mentally ill, attributable to years of abuse at his father's hands. One of the jurors who chose to sentence Muhammad to death said she would not have done so had she known what he had gone through earlier in life.
I wonder how it is any action in someone's life, no matter how horrific, could be excused by some because it was "someone else's fault." I am in no way ignoring the horrible effects child physical and sexual abuse can have on a person's psyche and future behavior, but at what point must a person accept responsibility for their own actions? If well into your adulthood you choose to commit a series of horrible actions, taking the lives of at least 10 people in acts of random, emotionless violence, is it really attributable to something that happened years before, or is that just a crutch you choose to stand on when your back is against the wall?
Muhammad's death will never bring those he and Malvo killed back to life, or even ease their suffering. But I also hope it may have sent a message to even one person contemplating such an act of violence that if they get caught, it isn't something that can be wiped away by excuses of abuse, religious hatred, even revenge. It isn't someone else's fault. If you want to cavalierly discard of human lives, at least accept responsibility for your choices. You control your own destiny. Which path you choose is your choice, not someone else's.