Many of the stories about suspected sniper John Allen Muhammad manage to get one fact into the lead: The 41-year-old Gulf War veteran is a convert to Islam. Most accounts also reveal that he provided security at the Nation of Islam's Million Man March in Washington, D.C., in 1995. The implied question is obvious: Could the sniper spree that has panicked the D.C. area these last two weeks be linked to global Islamic terror?
On television all Thursday morning, Fox News kept flashing two headlines in sequence: The first said the Jamaican-born Muhammad and his so-called stepson, John Lee Malvo, "have no known al-Qaida ties." But the second revealed that they were said "to sympathize with 9/11 hijackers." Other cable channels had experts ruminating about the possible terror link.
But while we obsess about whether violent Islamism played a role in the East Coast sniper spree, and look for Muhammad's al-Qaida ties, what are we missing? Based on the evidence accumulated so far -- which admittedly is incomplete -- there's far more reason to think he's as American as apple pie: An angry control freak who up to now has limited his violence to his wives and children, until finally finding a way to terrorize the rest of us.
In fact, Muhammad's second wife, Mildred, got a restraining order against him in March 2000, after he'd repeatedly threatened her and their children. When she moved to the Washington, D.C., area from Tacoma, Wash., in May 2001, she went to court to instate the order against him locally. That should have prohibited him from owning a gun -- once the order was imposed, if he owned guns, he should have turned them over, and if he didn't, he should have been prevented from buying any. But he apparently got weapons nonetheless. It may well turn out that the nation's sorry failure to enforce domestic-violence and gun laws is far more relevant than our failure to root out Muslim terrorists, if it turns out Muhammad is guilty of this murderous spree. But as of midday Thursday, nobody was talking about that on cable news.
Fox News hinged its terror headlines on a few details from a Seattle Times story, which said "several federal sources" alleged Muhammad and Malvo "may have been motivated" by anti-Americanism and support for the Sept. 11 attacks. The story went on to say that both "were known to speak sympathetically about the men who attacked the United States ... but neither man was believed to be associated with the al-Qaida terrorist network." That's a lot of shadowy federal sources saying absolutely nothing with certainty -- but it got picked up everywhere.
In fact the Seattle Times story has far more interesting and disturbing reporting about the suspect's messed-up personal life and his track record of threats and abuse. He converted to Islam, the paper reports, after an angry divorce, and tried to make his ex-wife Carol Williams conform to the religion's strict dietary rules when feeding their son. (She said no.) He's had custody battles with both wives: He refused to let Williams' son return to his mother after one visit, and she had to go to court and get him back.
His second wife got a restraining order against him. Mildred Muhammad petitioned for it Feb. 11, 2000, and the court record is vivid: On Feb. 8, 2000, she reported, "John came over at 7 a.m. to inform me he had tapped the phone lines. He had information that would destroy me. He started threatening me and I became very unsafe." He came back the next day, she reported, and forced his way into the house. When she called the police, they said they could do nothing without a restraining order. The very next day, he came back again. "John came over and told me he would not allow me to raise our children."
But that petition was dismissed when she missed a court date. She quickly filed again, and the restraining order was granted in March. In May, she told authorities he kidnapped their three kids and threatened to kill her. During a hospital stay that month, authorities placed Mildred Muhammad under protection and moved her to another room after John Muhammad told his wife's mother that he planned to kill her. The hospital also informed the Tacoma Police Department about the threats. (The Smoking Gun has posted a variety of Muhammad documents on its Web site. )
Months later, in January 2001, Muhammad still had the three children, and his ex-wife went to court to get permission to move the children, when she recovered them, and not tell Williams their whereabouts. The court granted the order, but it's not clear when and how she got the kids back. And there is no record that John Muhammad was ever arrested or charged in connection with the kidnapping charge or the restraining order violations.
There's also reason to believe that Malvo, the 17-year-old so-called stepson who's now a sniper suspect, may be more a victim -- of child abuse -- than a criminal. Despite news accounts calling him Muhammad's "stepson," their relationship is as shadowy as their alleged al-Qaida sympathies: The boy's mother was never married to the sniper suspect, and the ties between the man and boy are mysterious. One account referred to Muhammad as Malvo's "play father," since he has taken care of him for over a year.
He has apparently kept the boy out of school for most of that time, while they moved around from place to place, including a stay in a Bellingham, Wash., homeless shelter. When Muhammad and the boy visited family in Louisiana, relatives say he appeared to have "brainwashed" Malvo, according to a local television station, and would allow him to eat only crackers and honey.
And still the media fixates on Islam. Something about Muhammad's Muslim beliefs could turn out to be relevant here: sexism. Remember that the Nation of Islam's Million Man March excluded women, an exclusion that was criticized even by many black women who were sympathetic to its goals. It's worth remembering that most groups that preach a return to the days when men were the unquestioned head of the household have a terrible track record of looking away when the man wields that power with violence and abuse.
Yet there is no evidence that Muhammad had ties to a mosque or a Nation community; there's no evidence that he had ties of any kind. If any community bears responsibility for his alleged crimes, it's all of us, for allowing domestic violence and gun laws to be enforced so badly in this country. According to Americans for Gun Safety, Muhammad should never have been allowed to possess a gun, but there's a good chance his name was never entered into the national registry of people -- convicted felons, some restraining order targets and certain segments of the mentally ill -- who can't own a gun. Roughly half of prohibited buyers never get reported, the group says. Meanwhile, a bill to provide states with the funds to update their lists of prohibited gun-buyers is stalled in Congress. "The media isn't doing the hard work of asking why people who've been disqualified from owning guns continue to get weapons," says Andres Soto, policy director of the Pacific Center for Violence Prevention.
This remains a mysterious story. Beyond the murky question of the role played by religion, it's one of the few instances of a black serial killer, a crime genre usually the province of whites. But race and religion shouldn't obscure what appear to be the most significant, if mundane, facts: The suspect was a creepy, unbalanced wife abuser and control freak who had no problem getting a gun. Muhammad will likely turn out to be even less relevant to the global terror network than crazy Zacarias Moussaoui, another disconnected loser turned into a poster boy for the Muslim threat. We're all supposed to be more afraid of terrorists than anything -- it's practically our patriotic duty. But what the case of Muhammad seems to show, so far, is that we have more to fear from the things we know than the things we don't.