I don’t believe in capital punishment, but I will be glad if John Allen Muhammad is executed tonight. I wish someone had shot him down in the street before he and his witless teenage accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, went on their murderous spree, killing 10, wounding others and terrorizing the entire populations of Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
Muhammad is the sort of soulless killer who puts death penalty opponents like me in a moral bind. We don’t believe in the state putting anybody to death, including irredeemable thugs like Muhammad, but we—or at least I—wish they were dead. I resent expending millions of tax dollars to support a wretch like Muhammad as his appeal winds through the courts. I detest the notion that as long as he lives, he can still hope for a delay of his rendezvous with lethal injection. It troubles me that our legal system affords him mercy that he denied his victims and their families.
Like everyone who lived in Washington at the time of the Beltway sniper rampage, I have indelible memories. One of his victims, 72-year-old Pascal Charlot, was gunned down only a few blocks from the house in which I was living. My then 10-year-old daughter’s soccer team was forced to practice inside, running zig-zag to the door of the gym like pint-sized GIs evading enemy fire, because the sniper had threatened to target children. The hair on the back of my neck stood up every time I saw a white van, the sort of vehicle the police were looking for until they learned that the sniper actually drove a dark Chevy.
And yet I know that as much as I hate John Allen Muhammad for killing all those people and for frightening me and my kid, as glad as I’ll be when he’s finally gone, it’s wrong for the state to execute him. My belief is rooted in the conviction that the deliberate taking of life is always wrong, no matter who does it, no matter how heinous the criminal act that led to a death sentence. If anyone ever deserved to die for his crimes, it’s John Allen Muhammad. He deserves to die.
And yet, the state shouldn’t kill him.
I can’t provide a logical explanation for my position, and I don’t expect anyone to agree with me. But I believe that every deliberate killing, no matter who commits it, brutalizes us all in ways we don’t even realize. Refraining from taking a life, even a useless one like Muhammad’s, has the opposite effect. We need specimens like him around to remind us how monstrous human beings can be—not to learn from him, but to recoil from his horrid example.
And so, if all goes as the state of Virginia plans tonight and Muhammad is dispatched to the void, I’ll be filled with ambivalent, even hypocritical, emotions. I’ll be glad that the Beltway sniper is dead. But I’ll wish that we hadn’t killed him.
Jack White is a regular contributor to The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.