Politics & Policy

Those Crazy Terrorists

A potential terrorism loophole.

Over a year ago, when snipers were terrorizing Washington, D.C., the conventional wisdom was that the perpetrator was a white, right-wing Christian extremist, probably with a military background. It was a position arrived at more by the centripetal forces of political correctness rather than the pretended scientific application of profiling, since for some reason these are the only kind of extremists one can denounce with impunity. As Michelle Malkin recently pointed out, when the truth became known, that the snipers were not redneck anti-government types but self-proclaimed jihadist warriors, some pundits were forced to dine on crow, but not those of us at NRO who had it right from the beginning.

#ad#After the arrests of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo the press did its best to de-emphasize the jihad connection. For example, using the name John Williams instead of Muhammad’s nom d’ shaheed. Why the press was avoiding the uncomfortable truth is anyone’s guess, but as I pointed out last year, even obvious cases like the July 2002 attack on the El Al ticket counter at LAX by an unstable Egyptian were described as “unlinked to terrorism”–despite actually being terrorism. I had hoped that when John Muhammad served as his own lawyer we would be treated to the kinds of harangues that Zacharias Moussaoui has used to tie up his case, so we would get the full story of what motivated him to perpetrate these attacks. Alas, his legal career only lasted one day and his soliloquy did not veer into the ideological realm. The rest of his trial went by with little drama, and he was convicted with the jury recommending the death penalty.

So we were left with Malvo, who fortunately was given paper and pen while in prison, and being young and of the artistic bent, vented his frustrations in sketches and polemical statements. They look like the sort of doodles you could find in any talented teenage student’s notebook, at least those at Madrassa High. They give us a fairly clear window into Malvo’s mind. The prevalent themes are jihad, death, and revenge. Many sketches feature sniper themes, such as people (especially police) or symbols (such as the White House) in crosshairs. Others are direct tributes to Osama bin Laden. My favorite is exhibit 65-057 which is about as close as you can get to the al Qaeda worldview in one lesson. Other portraits honor Muammar Khadaffi and Saddam Hussein. Apparently Malvo is also into The Matrix, but who isn’t?

The ironic thing is that these drawings have been entered into evidence by the defense. Malvo’s team is seeking to make a case for insanity, that the young man was brainwashed into participating in the murders by Muhammad, whom he came to believe was his father. The drawings, given their violent intensity and ideological bent, are seen as proving the effectiveness of Muhammad’s indoctrination. The implication is that no sane person could believe all these things, so the more the defense is able to portray Malvo as a sincere jihadist bent on destruction, the crazier he must be.

The generally accepted legal definition of insanity in a criminal case is not being able to know right from wrong. The defense argues that Malvo was so under Muhammad’s spell that he lost this critical faculty. He then mechanically carried out the will of his older master, his ersatz father, resulting in the deaths of ten people. Let’s accept for a moment that Malvo probably picked up his knowledge of the jihadist ideology from Muhammad, who got it from who knows where. Did this obliterate Malvo’s capacity to distinguish between right and wrong, or did it give him new lenses through which to view the distinction? Imagine Osama bin Laden on trial. Did he know right from wrong when he conspired to carry out the 9/11 attacks? He thinks he did. There was no question whatsoever in his mind that these were justified, even sanctified blows against his enemy made in support of his righteous cause. We disagree–but does that make Osama insane? He may be insidious, inhumane, egomaniacal, and just downright evil, but as far as he is concerned, he is doing the right thing. Moreover, he has a clear understanding of cause and effect. If you ram jets into buildings, people will die. You can call the rogue many names but lunatic is not one of them.

So in trying to determine whether Malvo understood his role in the events, one might ask the following questions: Did they have a plan? Yes. Malvo confessed on tape that they had a very definite scheme to spread chaos, create a clamp down on civil liberties, and extort money. Did Malvo pull the trigger? He says he did every time. Did he understand what would happen when he did so? Only too well, knowing where to hit the body for a kill shot, preferring the head. Did he want to be caught? No, he wanted to remain “elusive, unknown and free.” His justification for all this? Check the drawings.

There is no basis for concluding Malvo was insane, even if he was passionately devoted to John Muhammad and his jihadist worldview. By his own admission he understood every aspect of the events in which he was a central actor, from the tactical level details to the strategic intent, and he wanted to pull the plan off and evade capture in the end. This is the m.o. of every single terrorist in the world, excepting in part the suicide bombers who don’t have to worry about their getaways. If Malvo can plead insanity, so can anyone who has ever passionately devoted himself or herself to a heinous cause and purposefully, willingly, methodically taken the lives of innocent people. And if we give the terrorists that gaping loophole to evade their just punishment, they’ll take it; they may be crazy but they aren’t stupid.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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