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.