Special Reports

Sniper case may also hint at a domestic kind of terror

The most telling voice in the case of John Allen Muhammad - the alleged sniper - is that of Charlie Green.

Green is a truck driver who called The News Tribune on Friday afternoon to set a few things straight. Green identified himself as Mildred Green's brother - and John Allen Muhammad's former brother-in-law.

Muhammad is the man suspected, along with a 17-year-old boy, of killing 11 people and wounding four from Alabama to Maryland. The Alabama shootings took place during a robbery. In Maryland and Virginia around Washington, D.C., the victims were struck down in the midst of everyday activities.

The media called the sniper's work terrorism, precisely because of that randomness.

Call something terrorism, and it instantly becomes national news, subject to all the overheated commentary, speculation and demand for all-out law enforcement we can aim at it.

But it's Charlie Green who drew the line between terrorism that makes national news, and the kind of terrorism that accounts for 10 percent of the nation's average 15,000 murder victims a year.

What his brother-in-law was engaged in, Charlie Green said, was domestic violence. He was after his ex-wife and his children, Green said. All those other people were camouflage he was erecting around the planned murder of his family.

When he talked about life in his former brother-in-law's home, Green described the classic pattern of domestic violence: The abuser isolates victims from their own independent support systems - job, friends. The abuser hooks the victims into a larger system - sometimes a form of religion - that reinforces their dependence on and required allegiance to the abuser. If they leave, the abuser goes after them.

Domestic abuse is not about the love and responsibility that bind a healthy family. It is about power.

Though the courts disagreed, John Allen Muhammad apparently believed he had a right to his children. So he abducted them and took them out of the country.

Though federal law said he forfeited his right to own a gun when he threatened to kill his wife, Muhammad acquired a $1,000 semi-automatic Bushmaster rifle - probably in Tacoma. In that regard, he has too much company. In June, the General Accounting Office reported that between 1998 and 2001, nearly 3,000 domestic abusers bought guns, though the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act barred them from doing so.

Muhammad's behavior fits patterns we report over and over in news that stays local - too unremarkable to rise to the national level.

Take a look at these few examples, culled from the pages of The News Tribune over the past two years:

• A spurned boyfriend goes to his ex-girlfriend's home and shoots her.

• A neighbor hears a woman being beaten next door, and when he goes to help her, is shot dead.

• A police officer picks up a man on a domestic abuse warrant, and is shot and left to die in the street.

• A man waits for his ex and his child outside a social services office, and shoots them dead in their car.

We don't call such acts terrorism, but that's what they are.

In Western Washington, legal, law enforcement, social services and human rights agencies have worked hard to break the national pattern in which agencies that touch domestic abuse don't communicate adequately with one another. They meet at annual conferences. They learn what works, and what doesn't work, elsewhere.

It's a big investment, and one worth continuing.

And, as the case of Mr. Muhammad seems to prove, one that must now include those who regulate the sale of arms - and the merchants who sell them.

Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677 kathleen.merryman@mail.tribnet.com