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The DC Sniper Story Revisited: Before the "Aftermath"

Posted by Fatherhood Blog

A few days ago, William Shatner, as part of his new A&E show called Aftermath, interviewed DC sniper, Lee Malvo. I have spoken and written about Malvo frequently over the years because his situation impacted me in several very personal ways.

First, at the time of the shootings, I had just moved from the Philadelphia area—the City of Brotherly Love—to the DC area. Now, Philly, despite the moniker, was no bastion of safety and security but at least we didn’t have to deal with snipers. I remember well that random activities like walking my dog, getting gas and loading groceries in the car became random acts of courage. It was indeed a very scary time that still haunts me a bit today.

Second, they caught Muhammad and Malvo sleeping at a rest stop in Maryland on Route 70. It turns out that this stop is the next exit up from my wife’s office. She is a family practice doctor in a little town called Myersville. It’s a very isolated and rural place and her office is just a “rock throw” from the highway. There’s a little BP gas station across the street from her office where she often fills her tank. You get the point…I have thanked God often that an alert trucker spotted Muhammad and Malvo’s car that October night.

Finally, I remember well the morning that the news reported Muhammad and Malvo had been caught. What especially caught my attention was that they said that the suspects were a 38 year-old man and a 17 year-old boy. I instinctively looked over at my 17 year-old son and thought: What would it take to turn him into someone who would shoot a woman in the face with no remorse? There’s a fatherhood story in here somewhere. Sure enough, a few days later, the Washington Post reported that they had found Lee Malvo’s father who had essentially abandoned him years ago. And the rest, tragically, is history.

In any case, what makes the Malvo story “news” now is that a celebrity is interviewing him and that he has suggested that there were supposed to be other snipers involved. That’s fine. But what makes this story important for me is what made it important years ago. Malvo’s story is less about crime than about how crime is connected to father absence.

“He was a kid who was brainwashed. He was a malleable teenager and lacking love in his life," Shatner said. "John Muhammad supplies the love and influences him to become a killer, and he becomes a coldblooded killer at the age of 17.”

Shatner’s statement is on point but it’s incomplete. Malvo had a mom who seemed to care about him but what he didn’t have was a loving father. Indeed, Muhammad did more than “supply” love. He became the father that Malvo longed for much of his young life. Of note, psychiatrist Diane Schetky, who served as an expert witness for the defense at Malvo's 2003 trial, quoted him as saying of Muhammad, “Anything he asked me to do I'd do. He knew I didn't have a father. He knew my weaknesses and what was missing.”

I often talk about “what was missing” in a child’s life—it’s a hole in a kid’s soul in the shape of his dad. Unfortunately, still today, Malvo shares a potential “weakness” with millions of other kids who are more at-risk to become prey for the many “Muhammads” of this world. However, these guys don’t always come as sniper trainers but rather as gang leaders, pimps and drug dealers who encourage children to sell their bodies and their souls.

It’s worth noting that a disproportionate number of Malvo’s fellow inmates tend to grow up in father absent homes. Despite this fact, we have done too little to address father absence in our nation. Indeed, most of the fatherhood programs that are committed to addressing this issue are grossly underfunded. I know that in NFI’s case, despite that great work that we have been doing to educate and inspire dads and the many testimonials from fathers, mothers and, even kids about the good work we do, it is a daily challenge to raise the needed funds for our important work. But, we press on because the stakes are high and we don’t have a fatherless kid to spare.

I suspect that Shatner’s Aftermath show will do well. Sadly, it seems that time and again we are more interested in the entertainment of the “aftermath” than what needs to be done beforehand to prevent it.

Topics: fatherhood, father involvement, father absence, NFI, father-son relationship, celebrities, incarceration, d.c. sniper, teens, father figure, biological parents

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