News & Politics

Beltway Snipers Back in the News

William Shatner and a two-hour MSNBC special revisit a shooting spree that targeted Washington

It’s rare that MSNBC follows a trail blazed by William Shatner, but when the cable-news network airs a new documentary, I Married the Beltway Sniper, on September 6, it’ll be doing precisely that. Shatner’s interview with Lee Boyd Malvo—who was 17 when he participated in the 2002 attacks that terrorized Washington—aired on the Star Trek vet’s A&E talk show on July 29. The motivation behind the two specials seems to be to reopen the case and to render Malvo and John Allen Muhammad comprehensible. But is there anything left to uncover about these two men, one executed last year, the other spending the rest of his life in prison? Or are these documentaries just picking at eight-year-old wounds?

The big reveals of Shatner’s conversation with Malvo were supposed to be that he and Muhammad had other co-conspirators, that they had more victims than previously reported, and that they planned to extend their shooting campaign. That intention—to move on to Baltimore and up the East Coast—has long been an established fact of the case. And it turns out that the other confessions weren’t exactly that; instead, they’re rehashes of Malvo’s conversations with a psychiatrist, some of which Malvo denied later. Hardly slam-dunk proof of a wider plot or additional crimes—and nothing that could provide answers to the relatives of victims of unsolved murders.

It’s not exactly clear what MSNBC’s documentary, with its pulp-novel title (which is slightly inaccurate anyway: Mildred Muhammad married the man who became the Beltway Sniper, she didn’t exactly have a jailhouse wedding to him) intends to prove, either.

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Is it trying to show that Mildred may have been the real target of the sniper attacks? Again, this was a theory that was floated in pretrial discussions but ultimately excluded by Judge LeRoy Millette Jr. from Muhammad’s Virginia trial. Or that Mildred’s warnings about her ex-husband were ignored by authorities? If so, there might be an interesting story to tell about why the restraining order she filed against him and his arrest for buying a gun while the restraining order was active didn’t prompt a follow-up, but it doesn’t particularly look like that’s the route MSNBC is taking. Or that Lee Boyd Malvo was either a brainwashed child or a fully cognizant participant in the attacks? That may be something that not even Malvo himself is certain of, and survivors may simply have to decide for themselves what they believe.

Or maybe it’s a larger attempt to find a rational explanation for the attacks. “To this day, questions remain about the killers and their motive for the attacks,” a voiceover declares before cutting to a clip of Katie Couric saying, “Citizens in the Washington area and experts alike are asking what kind of person could be committing these murders.” Is “a guy who wanted custody of his children” a clearer, more satisfying answer for Washingtonians than “a couple of guys who planned to blackmail the government into funding a startup black nationalist breakaway republic in Canada”? However Malvo and Muhammad justified the shootings to themselves, and whatever kind of people they are and were, it isn’t going to bring back the people they killed or convince their grieving families and the rest of Washington that the shootings were somehow justified or a worthwhile sacrifice.

That doesn’t mean the Beltway Sniper shootings aren’t worth investigating—as a case study in law enforcement, as a portrait of a community in crisis, as a way to consider the failure of social services for young men, as a Washington story. In comparison to those questions, who Malvo and Muhammad were, and why they took so many lives, seems less important.