World News America

Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Thursday, 12 November 2009

Matt Frei's diary: Ending without a story

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

John Allen Muhammad
Muhammad's reign of terror touched the lives of everyone in the DC area

It is very strange to know the exact time of a man's dying.

On Tuesday night, I was returning home from Dulles airport at the precise hour when John Allen Muhammad, one of the two Washington snipers, was put to death according to schedule in the Greensville Correctional Center in Virginia.

He was killed by lethal injection, or what one newspaper described as "a cocktail of three poisons".

Thiopental sodium entered his bloodstream and rendered him unconscious at 2106, just as my taxi was entering the George Washington Parkway.

Five minutes later, as we crossed Key Bridge to Georgetown, potassium chloride stopped his heart and Muhammad was declared dead.

Autumn of fear

I vividly remember the sniper's three-week-long killing spree. We had just moved to Washington DC with our three young children.

It was one of those beautiful autumns. The trees were burning with red and yellow leaves. The air was balmy. It was perfect playground weather. Except that we kept making excuses to our bewildered children about why we couldn't go to the playground.

Schools confined their pupils indoors. Some of them taped windows with black paper. I saw how tall Eritrean taxi drivers were crouching at petrol stations while filling their cars, after one of the victims had been shot at the pump.

Pedestrians started to zigzag when in the open. The wonderful open spaces of Washington suddenly felt like death traps and the most mundane outdoor activities became games of Russian roulette.

'We were all spooked'

For three weeks the sniper - we didn't know there was a duo until the end - was as mysterious as his motives or the choice of victims: a bus driver, a pensioner, an FBI analyst, gunned down at the local Home Depot DIY store that we were using to do up our new house.

Greensville Correctional Center
The killer was executed at the Greensville Correctional Center

They shot and almost killed a 13-year-old schoolboy. They struck in daylight or in the middle of the night. Their victims were African American, Indian American, Caucasian, male and female, young and old.

It was a very democratic killing spree and defied conjecture about motives and identity. At first, the police were on the lookout for a white box van, which in the District of Columbia is about every 10th vehicle.

The killer(s) kept leaving notes and dropping hints, which we and the police just weren't getting.

We were all spooked. It was agonising and the home-grown terror upstaged the foreign brand that we had been introduced to after 9/11.

After months of red and orange alerts, duct tape scares, Bin Laden tapes, and now the snipers, we were becoming nervous wrecks.

Motive a mystery

But what distinguished the snipers' killings from other massacres is that it lacked a clear narrative.

Matt Frei in the BBC World News America studio
When something as dramatic as this has happened, people abhor the absence of a story, however unpalatable

Until 2106 on Wednesday, John Allen Muhammad was protesting his innocence and gave us no real clues as to why he and his partner, who was 17 years old at the time, decided to kill.

Despite the older man's conversion to Islam, no-one really thought that the motive was religious, let alone that it was linked to the grievances of Islamic extremists.

His ex-wife maintains that the killings were an attempt to get at her. This also doesn't make sense.

There was no sign of drug abuse. We are not even certain why Lee Boyd Malvo, Muhammad's adopted son, pulled the trigger of the Bushmaster rifle on several occasions from the back of their converted Chevrolet.

When John Allen Muhammad died at 2111 on Tuesday evening, so did any chance of finding out what had really motivated him.

'Stories help healing'

One of the relatives of the victims who had come to witness the execution said that this was deeply troubling. It made any sense of closure even more unattainable.

Soldiers salute as they honor victims of the Fort Hood shooting at a memorial service
However senseless the crime, a motive may at least provide a healing story

And when something as dramatic as this has happened, people abhor the absence of a story, however unpalatable. Stories help the healing.

Let me zoom out for a minute. America is a country founded on stories and constantly feasting on them. From the Mayflower to the Founding Fathers to today's political drama, this country is one rollicking, self-renewing ballad.

Successful presidential candidates have compelling stories: Barack Obama, the guy with the exotic name, Bill Clinton, the kid from Hope; George Bush, the junior who proved he was tougher than senior; Ronald Reagan, the actor who became the principal. They all embodied a story.

The American Dream is a story - or these days, perhaps, a fairytale.

Osama Bin Laden also tells a story: the middle son of 50 or so princely siblings who turns against his country, his family and the corrupting influence of the West.

At the beginning of the week it emerged that even Major Nidal Malik Hasan had a story that ended in mass murder: he was the quiet Muslim who nurtured inner rage, soaked up the post-traumatic stress of his battle-scarred patients, tried to reach out to al-Qaeda and finally turned his own base into the battlefield that he had always managed to avoid.

The killings were, as they often are, described as senseless. And they were senseless. Maj Hasan may yet try to explain his actions.

To the end, John Allen Muhammad refused to do the survivors and relatives of his victims that favour.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).

And you can hear Matt present Americana on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service every week.


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