Sunday, October 07, 2012

Lee Boyd Malvo ten years later

This month marks the tenth anniversary of the Beltway Sniper shootings in the Washington, DC area. Ten people were killed, and three others wounded. John Allen Muhammed was executed in 2009. His accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, is currently serving six consecutive life sentences in a Virginia prison.

In a recent interview from prison, Malvo called himself a "monster." The interview is revealing. While he says that, during the shootings, he was "desensitized," he's now reflecting on his crimes in a way that could indicate a re-sensitizing to the damage he caused, and shows something resembling remorse. He talks about seeing one victim's husband's eyes-"the worst sort of pain I have ever seen in my life." Ten years ago, the 17-year-old Malvo reportedly laughed while telling investigators about this murder. One investigator predicted that Muhammed's "spell" over Malvo would wear off. When Malvo went to trial at age 21, separated from Muhammed for the first time in years, he was showing signs of getting out from under this dangerous influence, describing Muhammed's dominant role in the murders and the sway he held. Now 27, with Muhammed dead, Malvo feels the full weight of his actions.

Everyone matures substantially between the ages of 17 and 27, growing from an adolescent to an adult. The author of the article describes the older Malvo as "respectful," which is not an impression the teenage Malvo gave after his arrest, and something that was never said about Muhammed. Malvo says he's been practicing meditation in prison, which may have aided his recent revelations about his crimes.

The young Lee Malvo was easy prey for a dangerous influence like John Muhammed. He grew up in Jamaica and Antigua with abusive parents, and was sick when Muhammed found him and nursed him back to health, earning his trust. Malvo now says that, due to his vulnerability at the time, Muhammed "could not have chosen a better child" for his mission. To Malvo, Muhammed was "the father I wanted," and therefore wanted to please him, despite increasingly cruel demands and erratic behavior. Malvo says, during shooting practice, Muhammed instructed him to kill "the old Lee Malvo," similar to what cult leaders tell their followers, to remove all traces of their former lives. Considering Malvo's disadvantaged childhood, he probably welcomed the chance to "kill" his former self.

Muhammed was on a mission, becoming unhinged after losing custody of his children and the end of his second marriage. While Malvo saw Muhammed as a father, Muhammed saw Malvo as an accomplice in a crime, a disciple to do his bidding (and possibly a replacement son for the children he could no longer see). And Malvo was a willing disciple. But Muhammed's true nature was revealed after the arrest. Before the shootings, he had two failed marriages (one of his ex-wives had a restraining order against him), a string of failed businesses, a charge of kidnapping his children, and a stint in the army that included two court martials (one for disobeying an order, one for striking his commanding officer). This was a man with a grotesquely overgrown ego (a fact further illustrated by his incoherent ramblings while serving as his own attorney at his trial) and a violent streak who couldn't hold a job or make meaningful connections with others. It was the damage to his ego when his wife left with his children that set him off on the rampage that led to his and Malvo's arrests. In short, John Muhammed sounds like a classic sociopath. Malvo finally saw this after the arrest. He says that, after confessing to shootings that he likely didn't perpetrate in an effort to protect his "father," Muhammed readily turned on him to save himself. He saw that Muhammed "doesn't give a rat's ass whether I live or die." Muhammed never truly cared about Malvo. The only reason he wanted a "son" was to help him on his rampage, and to have a young disciple to feed his damaged ego. This was probably a key revelation in Malvo getting out from under Muhammed's influence.

I remember reading some comments from acquaintances after Muhammed's execution who thought Malvo should have been executed too, and that he shared equal blame for the shootings. They would not be swayed by what Malvo said at trial, and in this interview. But I think Malvo is being sincere. While he calls Muhammed "sinister" and "evil" and talks about being under a spell, he never fully absolves himself of the crimes. He says, "I was a monster" and advises "don't allow me and my actions to victimize you for the rest of your lives." The last comment is in response to a question of what he would say to the victims. He says he wants to be forgotten, for the surviving victims to live their lives out of the shadow of his violent acts. "We can never change what happened." When Malvo says "you take that power away from this other person, this monster, and you take control," it appears he's not only speaking to his victims, but also about himself, now out from under a dark influence.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Political brief

Obviously, what's on most Americans' minds lately is the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, but I've been a bad blogger and a bad citizen, and have not been following the campaign as closely as I should. As I've said before, I definitely lean to the left politically, and therefore am not a Romney supporter (PBS as first on the budget chopping block? With an increase in Pentagon spending? Maybe I'm naive, but that doesn't seem right). However, Obama has proven disappointing. Big business is as powerful as ever, many civil liberties violations that started under Bush continue, and unemployment has wavered (though today's report indicates that it's now at its lowest since Obama took office), as has the economy. People have been complaining about our political process for decades, and yet nothing seems to change. This highlights one of the core problems with a democracy; there are a lot of stupid people out there, easily swayed by hollow words about personal freedom or public duty. Another problem is, the person who is elected is not always the same person who we see at the end of the term. There are no guarantees that any candidate will, or can, keep campaign promises. This isn't to let the politicians who don't perform up to standard off the hook; one of the good points of a democracy is that the people can make their approval or disapproval known. But we simply have no way of knowing for sure how the candidate we elect will perform once in office. One of the other problems with the political process, the one I've been thinking about a lot with news of the campaign, is the nature of being a nation's leader. It's a thankless job (again, not letting bad leaders off the hook, just trying to make a point). An entire country is depending on them to make good decisions, many of which have to be made at a moment's notice. Since no two people are exactly alike, there will always be a group who doesn't like what the leader is doing, and may be quite verbal or even violent in their displeasure (the reason world leaders, even those no longer in power or just hopeful future leaders, travel with bodyguards). And, particularly in this era, every move is met with public and media scrutiny. Most of us, understandably, wouldn't want that kind of pressure, so obviously the ones who do, and actively court campaign dollars and spend months on the trail to get it, are very different from the rest of us, and maybe not in a good way. Maybe some of them just want the power. Then there's the fact that simply being in power significantly changes a person (a possible subject for another post, once I track down the studies I read), usually for the worse, even those who originally wanted to use their power to do good. Politics is a dirty business, and probably always will be. But the optimist in me (yes, there's an optimist in me now, not sure how that happened) thinks that if the public is better informed about the nature of the political game, we might be able to change it for the better. I'm not sure how, but, to quote a cliche, knowledge is power.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Christopher Stevens, and faith-based violence

The big news this week has been the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Libya. They were killed in an attack on the embassy by radical Muslims offended by a highly amateur film from America that portrayed the prophet Muhammed in a negative light. As an agnostic humanist, maybe I'm not the right person to comment on religious matters. But this is simply an appeal to common sense. What mere film could be so offensive as to make members of a religion believe that they had the right to attack the country the film came from? Just as many Libyans banded together after the diplomats' deaths to condemn the attacks and hail Stevens as a hero who helped their country, the majority of Americans view the film in question as inflammatory and grossly irresponsible in its blatant hatred (there are also reports that the filmmaker lied to the actors and others involved about the movie's subject). The country is not accountable for the actions of one person. Most Americans didn't even know the movie existed until the embassy attack. I'm sure the irony will be lost on the extremists who stormed the embassy in Libya and the extremists continuing to protest across the Middle East, but, they're upset by a movie that portrays Muslims as violent, and they respond with violent behavior that so far has murdered four people who were only trying to help. Religious or personal beliefs are not an excuse for murder. I don't know why we have to keep reminding people of that. Hillary Clinton gave an excellent speech in response to the attacks. She condemned both the movie and the murders, and pointed out that all religions in the world have been subject to insults and bigotry, but these insults are no reason to become violent. Faith, she said (and I'm paraphrasing), is strongest when it can ignore and overcome these insults, not respond with extreme violence. Again, I'm not religious, but it seems that those who rage against anyone who denigrates their religion is not particularly strong in their faith. If a poorly made film can shake your faith to the point where you kill someone over it, how strong can it be? Isn't the definition of faith believing in something without question? Though I have no religious faith, there are several things that offend me: Fox News, governments at home and abroad that deny basic rights to women and minorities based on sheer prejudice, the Catholic Church's refusal to accept that the world has changed since the Middle Ages. But none of this offense is enough for me to kill anyone. I can just voice how I feel, do what I can (peacefully) to try and change laws or policies I believe are unjust, and continue living my life based on my personal code of ethics. The term "personal code of ethics" can just as easily be applied to religion. If anything can be taken from the death of the diplomats in Libya, it's that the peacemakers put their lives at risk just as much as the soldiers fighting the wars. Yet the diplomats have no holidays, no memorials, and we aren't urged to support them as we are to "support the troops." But just like the soldiers, the diplomats are putting their lives on the line in the hopes of making the world a better place. It's a shame they sometimes have to die violently in their quest to bring peace.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The complicated shadows of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin

Due to recent changes in my life, I haven't had time to post. But I want to change that, starting now. Between the upcoming election, the Trayvon Martin case and Anders Behring Breivik's trial, there's been a lot to think about, and I need to start writing more. In light of recent revelations about George Zimmerman, where he was recorded last year criticizing the Sanford police, and the "Prelude to a Shooting" article, I have formed a very elementary opinion about what may have happened that fateful night. Zimmerman joined the neighborhood watch after an ill-tempered dog terrorized him and his wife, and was urged by a police officer to get a gun to protect himself. He then became very active in the organization. In 2011, there had been a series of break-ins in the neighborhood, and witnesses pinned the crimes on a group of young black men. With this information, Zimmerman saw a young black man walking down the street one night, and, after another "suspect" had gotten away from him while waiting for the police, did not take the time to follow proper protocol. In his eyes, Trayvon Martin was a potential suspect, and he didn't want another one to get away. So he took matters into his own hands, with disastrous consequences. George Zimmerman is not the racist early reports and activists painted him as, but an overzealous vigilante. As for what happened that night, it appears that Zimmerman saw Martin walking home, and pegged him as suspicious, due to his resemblance to the break-in suspects. The rest of this is pure speculation. Zimmerman approached Martin, and Martin, annoyed at Zimmerman's interrogation, started getting angry. This led to a fight, with Zimmerman trying to subdue who he thought was a beligerent suspect. He didn't want to wait for the police, after what had happened with his previous suspect, and, if his critique of local law enforcement is any indication, this was a man who didn't have much faith in the police. During the course of the fight, Zimmerman pulled out his gun and fired. Whether this was self-defense or murder (just how angry Martin got and whether Zimmerman's response was appropriate) is for a court to decide. I don't have enough evidence to make a call either way. But I don't believe this was a case of racial profiling (not consciously, at least). As tragic as it is, it appears that Trayvon Martin was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another big question is how this murky case of vigilantism turned into a cornerstone of discussion of race in American society. The press, either misinformed or deliberately exaggerating and simplifying in the quest for a story, had a big part, as did the activists like Al Sharpton (desperately looking to recover his shattered credibility) who latched onto the case. Even President Obama weighed in on the race issue when he probably shouldn't have. However mishandled the coverage of the Zimmerman/Martin story was, it ultimately became a symbol for everyone in America who sees examples of racism every day. While George Zimmerman may not have been motivated by racism, there are many Trayvon Martins in this country, targeted by police and civilians based on the color of their skin. People heard about Martin's death, the shooting of an unarmed young black man by a vigilante who thought he might be a criminal based on his appearance, and saw similar situations that had happened to friends or themselves. As much as we want to believe otherwise, racism, in many forms, still exists in this country, and those who say so are often shouted down by those who want to deny it because "things are better than they used to be." Trayvon Martin, or the initial perception of his death, was proof of the racism that some of us saw, but some of didn't want to see. While this case has turned out to be far less black and white, the discussion around it brought up issues that need to be faced. When I saw Bruce Springsteen perform back in April, he performed "41 Shots," which was written about a similar case in New York a few years ago. That one was a little less complicated; if the shooting was self-defense, as the police officer claimed, why did he shoot the unarmed teenager 41 times? Springsteen may have been performing the song with Trayvon Martin in mind. But, with lines about taking "the law into your hands" and "you should've never been playing with a gun in those complicated shadows," a more appropriate song for this messy situation is Elvis Costello's "Complicated Shadows."