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Crime & Punishment

Perhaps The Closest We'll Get To Ever Knowing 'Why'

Mildred Muhammad, former wife of convicted Washington, D.C., area sniper John Allen Muhammad, recently gave her first broadcast interview to NPR's Tell Me More. Muhammad candidly described to NPR her initial reaction to authorities when told her then-husband was believed to be a mass murderer. Argin Hutchins/NPR hide caption

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Argin Hutchins/NPR

Did you notice anything interesting or slightly unusual about the program today? (I'll answer at the end of this post.)

But first, Mildred Muhammad.

There is no easy path is there? She is the former wife of John Allen Muhammad, the convicted Beltway sniper, who, along with Lee Boyd Malvo, a young accomplice he trained (although many might say manipulated or brainwashed) killed ten people and wounded three others in a three week shooting spree throughout the Washington, D.C., area in October 2002. We spoke to her for the program today. She's written a new book, an excerpt of which was recently published in The Washington Post Magazine, and later paired with a live Web chat.

Many of the broad outlines of the story were known, but it was hard to put it all together. Long story, short: John Allen Muhammad, she believes, orchestrated the D.C.-area shootings so that he could eventually kill her and reclaim his children (whom he had previously kidnapped), so he could make himself out to be the "hero dad."

I was curious about the venom directed at her in the Web chat. One man called her "disgusting" saying she had a lack of compassion for the "real victims" because she has written a book and wants people to buy it. Huh?

One does not have to agree with her or buy her book. But, it does seem worthwhile to hear first-hand from a person who was so close to someone who did something so unthinkable. Why anyone feels a need to direct opprobrium at such a person is beyond me. It seems we often want to (and I can't bring myself to use that real term) hate on the messenger.

I recall when I was a correspondent at ABC News for "Nightline" and the program obtained a filmed interview with the Chechen rebel leader who orchestrated that terrible mass hostage taking at the school in Beslan. To this day, I cannot bear that story — all those children and parents and teachers held under awful conditions, many of whom were killed and wounded — but I wanted to see that interview. (I just wanted to know, why? ... How can you justify what you did?)

In Russia, there was outrage at the interview. There were even diplomatic moves to try to punish ABC News.

My take on it is, of course, that they were directing their hostility at the wrong person. Anything that helps us understand that mentality is worth paying attention to.

And so it is with today's story. Mildred Muhammad might not be a trained psychologist, but she did have an up-close and personal view of a man who went on to cause great harm.

And I, for one, am grateful to hear what she thinks about the one thing we need to know: why?

*Okay, here is the answer (and it is something I had not noticed until after the program went off the air): today's program featured all women guests today. Was it intentional? No. Why is it unusual? Because the data content surveys all show that news programs as a whole feature vastly more male guests that female guests. This is across media (or platforms, as it were) and has changed very little over time. There are all kinds of reasons why that might be so. But what do you think about that? Did you notice? ... Do you care? I'm curious to know.