By Sandra J. Jones
On November 11 our nation honored its military veterans for their service, yet on the eve of this national holiday one veteran in Virginia received national attention for a vastly different reason. John Muhammed, a Gulf War veteran, had become known as the “D.C. Sniper” when he and his juvenile accomplice went on a killing spree in 2002 throughout Washington D.C. and the surrounding area that left 10 people dead and 6 others wounded. Now seven years later he faced his own execution, as he had been sentenced to the death penalty by a Virginia court. The irony of veteran Muhammed’s execution on the eve of Veteran’s Day became even more pronounced when, one week later, another veteran was executed in Virginia. Larry Elliot, a former Army counterintelligence officer, became the first person to be killed in the electric chair in the United States this year.
Outside of the loyal few abolitionist members of VADP (Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty) who stood vigil outside of the prison during these two recent Virginia executions, any national outcry of the broader anti-death penalty movement went largely unnoticed. Yet the movement has been extremely vocal lately. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) has launched a campaign to “Shout from the Rooftops” the results of a recent study that has revealed an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, was executed in 2005 by the state of Texas. Certainly, it is no surprise that abolitionists would choose to build a campaign against the death penalty around cases of innocence like Willingham’s, rather than cases similar to those of John Muhammed. Particularly for those residents of D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, the sheer terror that Muhammed and John Lee Malvo brought during their three week long murderous rampage does not elicit public sympathy for death row inmates.
In order to fully understand the relative silence of the anti-death penalty movement around the two recent Virginia executions, however, it is important to note a significant event that occurred just five days before Muhammed’s scheduled execution. On November 5, an Army officer named Nidal Hasan walked into a busy building within the Ft. Hood Army Base and opened fire, killing 13 people and wounding 29 others. Initially, Hasan was reported to be among the dead, yet as the chaos subsided, the news that he was alive shocked the nation. There is little question that the charges against him are likely to lead to a death sentence. The public reaction to this horrific event was immediate and harsh. Any hopes of death penalty opponents to subsequently seek mercy for Muhammed, or any other military veteran, on the basis of arguments that focus on the traumatic effects of military service were dashed.
The anger toward Hasan could be felt around the nation, yet as reports began to emerge that numerous warning signs had existed that Hasan was mentally unstable and capable of such an atrocity, political pundits have attempted to redirect our outrage. The target has become notions of “political correctness” that are presumed to have allowed Hasan, a Muslim American, to remain in his position of Army psychiatrist. Death penalty opponents must not shy from the rhetoric around race/ethnicity and religious affiliation that is being advanced by those who aim not only to strengthen the punitive response to Hasan, but also to weaken our nation’s commitment to multiculturalism. They can start with a simple reminder that, while John Muhammed was a black Muslim American, the next military veteran to enter Virginia’s death chamber a week later, Larry Elliott, was a white man. More significantly, the most notorious United States military veteran turned terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, was also a white man. The death penalty has certainly not been able to fix the mental state of our military veterans who become violent. We must avoid the temptation to reduce them to their race/ethnicity or religious affiliation and focus our energies instead on repairing the faults that lie within our military institutions and the wider society that allow such mentally unstable individuals to go untreated.
Sandra J. Jones is assistant professor of Sociology at Rowan University and is the author of Coalition Building in the Anti-Death Penalty Movement: Privileged Morality, Race Realities.