Learning to pick one's battles is one of life's great lessons. Unfortunately few learn it, especially these days when nearly every human incident is freighted with potentially sweeping applications.
In the era of identity politics and groupthink, no deed goes unspun. Even the accused sniper now has a rallying section. From disenfranchised blacks who feel his pain? No. From radical Muslims sympathetic to anti-American terrorist acts? No.
Even though it probably will be a year or more before John Allen Muhammad's guilt or innocence will be determined in court, he has attracted unlikely sympathizers from the ranks of some divorced dads. In a marvel of dot-connecting, some men's activists are interpreting his unraveling as the nearly inevitable result of the tortures he endured on the rack of America's family court system.
Internet threads to that effect have begun circulating. Television "spundits" have courted experts to lend credibility to the aphorism: "It's the family, stupid."
Muhammad's sisters have confirmed his lousy life, and former in-laws and ex-wives have noted his frustration over divorces and lost custody battles.
One of the stranger theories is that Muhammad killed or wounded more than a dozen innocent civilians so that when he eventually got around to killing an ex-wife who lives in Maryland, her death would seem random. Wouldn't two or three victims have served such purpose?
A men's discussion thread that made it to my e-mail box includes the suggestion that Muhammad deserves the defense of fellow spurned fathers. Feminists rallied for Andrea Yates, who drowned her four small children, they said; now is the time for activist men to rally around Muhammad.
Four words fellows: That dog don't hunt.
If ever there were a time to step out of the frame, this is it. Let me explain. In the world of public relations, one of the first lessons people in the public eye, especially politicians, learn is to avoid getting photographed with the wrong people. When the cameras are trained on a serial killer, in other words, step as far away as possible.
Once the photo is taken, no one will care or remember that you were just a bystander to the moment. You're in it; guilty by association. Or, as in this case, you diminish your credibility by demanding sympathy where none is deserved or likely forthcoming.
Attaching one's cause to such vile acts is a classic lesson in self-defeat. Muhammad may have cracked, as some have surmised, owing to a variety of circumstances that may include his family problems. He also had a failed business. He also was homeless. He also was a former military man who was discharged from service without honor.
The man had lots of problems, as do lots of people who nevertheless do not start shooting people. Reasons do not constitute excuses. As a memorable "Saturday Night Live" skit once darkly revealed, Hitler had "reasons."
As for Andrea Yates, the only similarity is that both Yates and the sniper killed innocents. But Yates killed her own children, not random strangers, and she was a diagnosed psychotic suffering a condition specific to women.
Some might argue that Muhammad suffered a condition specific to men -he lost his children in custody disputes. While it is true that fathers often lose their children to divorce -sometimes to selfish, vengeful ex-wives -it isn't necessarily so that Muhammad was treated unjustly. Until we know more, we might consider the possibility that Muhammad lost his children because he was the sort of narcissistic, violence-prone man who was capable of wholesale murder and terror.
Few would have defended Andrea Yates' right to care for her children when she clearly was dangerous to everyone, including herself. Would that her husband had removed his children from their insane mother instead of continuing to impregnate her against doctors' warnings.
Why did the sniper snap? No less plausible is another theory in circulation that the sniper was demonstrating for "his people," fellow radical Muslims, a model for urban terror. See what one man with a weapon can do?
What is true and deserving of continued discussion and urgent remedy is that too many children are growing up without their fathers. Although some judges and family courts are getting better at balancing children's needs against grown-up wants, we are far from the necessary goal of ensuring all children access to both parents.
Men's organizations that promote fatherhood and shared parenting are doing important, commendable work as long as their focus is on what best serves children. John Allen Muhammad has served no one's interests but his own. In this picture, he deserves to stand alone.