The Dad Card: What makes a man become a monster?

By Maralyn Lois Polak

How does a man become a monster?

So far, nothing yet has satisfactorily explained the suspected Beltway Sniper’s hideous transformation from John Allen Williams, thrice-decorated Gulf War veteran, Baton Rouge native, father of four, failed karate instructor, marginal auto mechanic, to John Allen Muhammad, malevolent twice-divorced drifter, grifter, stalker, self-styled step-dad, and accused “man and boy” serial slayer who terrorized yet mesmerized a nation, nothing.

Not his hair-trigger temper, not his fixation with marksmanship, not his historic difficulties with authority, not his court-martial for hitting a superior officer early in his military career nor his eventual “honorable discharge” – can this be true – the next decade. Not his bouts of domestic violence, not the marital threats and restraining orders, not twice abducting his own children by different mothers, not his possible exposure to deadly chemical weapons while learning to blow things up in Iraq (!) as a soldier and land-mine expert during the Gulf War.

Not the bitter collapses and custody battles of his two marriages, not the shoplifting and petty theft and homelessness and sojourn in a Christian shelter in Bellingham, Wash., not the rigorously disciplined backyard target practice – three bullets per afternoon, shooting up tree-stumps last January in Tacoma – and no, not even his conversion to Islam in 1985 and finally, officially, changing his surname to “Muhammad” just last year.

Was he radicalized by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center? If so, perhaps it’s deliberate symbolism, because precisely a year later, to the day, he co-registered the blue Caprice crime vehicle – ironically, a former police car purchased for $250 – in Camden, N.J., launching the horrific Hegira culminating in what some would label his own personal jihad.

Or was it his awful childhood – mother dying of cancer when he was 5, no father around, so the kid was parceled out to Louisiana relatives – did that dehumanize him?

Absent any terror-cell connections which may emerge, I submit John Allen Muhammad’s geographical peregrinations, maybe the locus of his rampage itself, were largely triggered by his thwarted compulsions to be a father, and his pathological desperation to manifest the appearance of a stable family life as an antidote to his own horribly fractured childhood. A father in possession – a stronger word than custody – of his own children ripped away from him by the consequences of his own violent actions.

Imagine a map of America. Then, “Cherchez La Femme,” as investigators used to say, Look for the woman. Not surprisingly, Muhammad’s most recent ex-wife and three kids live in Clinton, Md., mere moments away from the bloody handiwork of his murderous rampages.

“I’ll show her”?

Some serial killers, according to retired FBI criminal profiler John Douglas, may take a lock of hair or a piece of junk jewelry from their victims, and pass this “trophy” onto their wife or their girlfriend – who they were really mad at in the first place, only they murdered the other one, instead – and each time they see their lady wear this souvenir, this memento, it’s like a trophy in their den.

Displaced rage?

John Allen Muhammad’s first ex-wife, Carol, mother of his 20-year-old son Lindbergh, claims she got an anonymous telephone death threat Oct. 23, before his capture. His second ex-wife, Mildred, who reportedly feared for her life after their breakup, moved in with her sister, a few miles from his bloody handiwork. Even Uma Malvo, Jamaican illegal and mother of his accused teenage accomplice, reportedly complained to Bellingham police last year about his unduly controlling her son in a homeless shelter. All these women, at one time or another, accused him of kidnapping their children.

Anyone who deflected his Father Compulsion faced his eventual wrath.

“The Sniper’s Wife,” Archer Mayor’s mystery novel, has this blurb: “Pulled deeper and deeper into a past before Vermont, before the drunken abuse he inflicted on Mary, before his abandonment of family and friends, Willy encounters his ghosts from Vietnam – where he was known as The Sniper, lethal loner who struck without mercy.”

Change “Willy” and Vermont” and “Vietnam” to “John” and “Tacoma” and “Gulf War.” Try it. Scary parallels, huh?

If former brother-in-law Charlie Green is correct, John Allen Muhammad’s sniping rampage was setting the stage for his eventual extermination of the ex-wives and children who, in his mind, spurned him.

And so he conscripted Malvo and created a Stepford Son.

How does a man become a monster? You tell me.