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Going crazy on Maple Street

By Kimberley Lindsay Wilson
web posted October 28, 2002

I swore I wouldn't write a thing about the so-called "DC sniper" until he or they were arrested. I felt strongly that the killer was enjoying the media attention and I refused to add to his scrapbook. Thankfully, 41-year old John Allen Muhammad and his companion, John Lee Malvo, a 17-year old illegal alien from Jamaica have finally been caught. These two wild men are responsible for shooting 10 people and horribly wounding three others. Now that they're in custody, people in Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia are feeling a relief that many haven't known since the first week of October. I'm thankful that the nightmare is over but there are a couple things that are bothering me. Hopefully, they bother you too.

John Lee Malvo and John Allen Muhammad
John Lee Malvo and John Allen Muhammad

First, let's stop calling them snipers. A military trained sniper has to undergo stringent mental evaluation, a long period of training and has to possess an IQ higher than the average American. John Allen Muhammad was in the military and had combat experience in Desert Storm but he's no sniper. He was trained as a machinist and at one point drove a water truck. We now know that he and the Malvo kid had a specially designed car that allowed them to shoot from their car. Shooting unaware people doesn't take much in the way of marksman skill.

Second, am I the only one who is disgusted by the media's conduct in this case? In a frenzied rush to be the first ones to get the story so much conflicting information was released to the public that it's a pretty safe bet to say that the investigation itself was interfered with. Time and Newsweek magazines devoted multiple cover stories to the killers that made them seem like mad geniuses instead of the thugs they really are. Muhammad and Malvo made and continue to make the front pages of USA Today and newspapers from around the country. Radio and TV news programs had, an inexhaustible parade of "experts" who offered their worthless opinions on the case. CNN even came up with theme music for its sniper reports. This wasn't a news story; it was a carnival that ran 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

Not only was most of what the media presented to the public wrong, (Muhammad and Malvo aren't white, they aren't natives to the DC suburban area, they weren't found in a white van and weren't loners with no family members) but it seems that the killers responded to what was said. When the public was told that the schools were perfectly safe, they shot a 13 year old boy in Maryland, leaving him alive but so gravely hurt that he will probably never have a normal life again. When the public was told that the killer only shot close to "home" and that the killer's pattern was to strike every other day they went almost 100 miles away to Ashland, Virginia and shot a man. The next day, they killed their final victim, a 35 year old bus driver who was the father of two children. In the name of ratings how much fuel did the media throw on the vicious imaginings of Muhammad and Malvo?

Police Chief Charles Moose, the cop with the toughest name in America
Police Chief Charles Moose, the cop with the toughest name in America

On top of the carnival atmosphere, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose was second guessed and mocked throughout the entire investigation. His PHD dissertation can now be found on the Internet and his fitness to handle this case was questioned by the TV and radio "experts". The Washington Post, which seemed to be doing its best to whip its readers into complete panic even dug into the poor man's background in a remarkably cheesy -- and failed -- effort to dig up dirt.

Finally, although this may offend you, consider this: For most of October, hysteria reigned supreme from the DC suburbs to Richmond and its surrounding counties. Two evil men controlled the lives of millions of people. Students in the most of the affected areas were on lockdown for weeks. Class trips, recess, after school programs and all outside sports were cancelled. At various points many schools in the Maryland, DC, and Virginia area were closed. Some parents even refused to let their children play outside in their own backyards.

Adults were afraid to go to the gas station and on the weekends there were noticeably less people in parks, restaurants and in the shopping malls. Last week I looked out of my living room window and saw one of my neighbors -- I'll call him "Ed", staggering across the parking lot. My first shocked thought was that Ed was falling down drunk at 7 am in the morning. As I watched he suddenly stood up straight and bolted towards his car. The poor man was doing the "weave and bob" to avoid being shot. One woman I know became so overwrought with fear for her seven year old son's safety at school that she seriously considered sending him to relatives in another state until the killers were caught. Another acquaintance found herself shaking and crying whenever the news told us about a new victim. Instead of wishing me a good or nice day sales clerks and waiters somberly told me to "be safe."

John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo are two dangerous losers. One or both of them may have thought themselves to be gods but they aren't and it goes against all reason that they were able to reduce an entire region to a mass of Jello. The huge majority of us had a better chance of being struck repeatedly by lightning or of winning the lottery in our states than we ever had of running into Muhammad and Malvo's bullets.

In 1960, a remarkable episode of the Twilight Zone aired. It was called "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" and was about the citizens of a bucolic neighborhood who go berserk with blind fear because of the manipulations of two outsiders. This October a lot of us landed on Maple Street.

Kimberley Lindsay Wilson is the author of Work It! The Black Woman's Guide to Success at Work (Iuniverse, ISBN 059500122X, $8.95) & Eleven Things Mama Should Have Told You About Men (African American Images, September 2000, ISBN: 0913543691, $12.95).

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