In the 45 years since I was 12, and old enough to know the importance of such people in our world, I have made the fond acquaintance of many murderers, drug dealers, thieves, cheats, pimps and swindlers, as well as the countless snitches and other bottom-feeders they attract.

A few of the members of this rogue's gallery I met in college; I met one or two others at church. And I've met others in the Nation of Islam.

I'm glad that law enforcement has apprehended two suspects that they are fairly certain are responsible for the Washington area sniping. Last week I made the word "sniper" synonymous with the vilest word in my personal vocabulary. I used the epithets: "You look like a sniper!" and "You smell like a sniper!" in the same way the invective "yo' mama" is hurled in the ghetto vernacular. But I'm neither surprised nor really disappointed that one of the suspects in custody had ties to the Nation of Islam.

As peaceful as is the true teaching of Islam in its simple instruction to surrender one's will to Allah (God), when that teaching is filtered through the African-American experience of brutal slavery and Jim Crow--with three lynchings per week at its peak--it is easy to understand how some black converts to Islam might want to hasten that "great and dreadful day" when the Almighty will see to it that white America reaps the havoc it has sown on so many non-whites during its brief but bloody history.

It's never difficult assembling a quorum in any black barbershop to forgive the most gruesome acts committed by any black person-even a deranged person-against the larger white society. The Tuskeegee syphilis experiment, the Scottsboro Boys and the riots in Tulsa, Okla., are still fresh memories.

And if the anger is there, so is the connection to violence. Is it possible the Nation of Islam ignores it in its midst? There is no question that Minister Louis Farrakhan's sermons are often bitterly angry, and that such an atmosphere often permeates the Nation of Islam's meetings. But in reality, one of the things the Nation stresses most is self-control. So while it's true that the Nation does not eradicate the violent nature from all the people like John Muhammad who profess belief, I also don't think it fuels it.

Thirty-four years ago, when I first got involved with the Black Muslim movement, the Nation of Islam was well-known for attracting ex-convicts to its ranks. Like Malcolm X, many of those men converted while they were incarcerated. For the first time in their lives, they heard a message that they had God-given dignity, that they had intrinsic worth in the eyes of the creator, and a hallowed place not only in his creation, but also in his prophecies about today and his later judgment of this world.

The Nation enforced discipline on these men. The Nation's influence caused most of them to strive for higher achievements than they ever had before, and to leave the criminal lifestyle behind. But sometimes their previously acquired thug-life habits died hard. And because new converts are accepted almost as "newborns" in the faith, the slate wiped clean of any mention of their previous wicked lives, it's easy for those whose "transformation" is not complete to conceal the bad things they may still be doing from other Nation members who are striving to do good.

When I was a student minister at Muhammad Mosque No. 26 in San Francisco in the early 1970s, we referred to our region as "the wild, wild West." We were unregulated, because we felt we knew better than anyone anywhere how to interpret and how to live out the strict teaching given by the Hon. Elijah Muhammad.

Although most of the members I knew were (as they are now) God-fearing men and women, striving, praying to be "...upright to Him Who originated the Heavens and the earth...," I still remember many kooks and rogues. Brother Harlan X was one. I walked the streets of Salinas, Calif. with Harlan one day, selling Muhammad Speaks newspapers during a rally for United Farm Workers Union organizer Cesar Chavez. In 1970 he was accused of murdering another Muslim, supposedly over a drug deal that went bad.

Lt. Jervis X was another. He taught me karate when I first became a Muslim and first began attending Fruit of Islam (F.O.I.) classes. I thought he was as decent a man as I had ever known. He was a washing machine salesman at Sears. But then he was charged with attempted murder in 1971. Elements of the F.O.I. had been whispering among themselves that prostitutes should be doused with gasoline and then have lighted matches thrown on them. Jervis and a woman were both found in flames in the San Francisco Tenderloin district one Saturday night.

The most frightening case I knew about at that time was the arrest of several members of the San Francisco Mosque who were all former inmates. They were converted in prison, some of them served together at the same time, and they were all recruited to work for a Nation member who operated a moving and storage business. They were charged with systematically snatching white people off the streets and brutally murdering them in 1972. They were San Francisco's notorious "Zebra" killers. Fortunately for me that summer, I was taken away to Chicago, where I worked under Mr. Muhammad's direct supervision--eventually as editor-in-chief of Muhammad Speaks newspaper.

And I'm not particularly disappointed that people who have long ago vilified Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam as the black equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan are now having a field day draping this suspect in the trappings of the Black Muslim movement. Black people in America--all people in America--are better off today because of the presence of the Nation of Islam in our midst, no matter how many "bad apples" turn up in the bushel. The Hon. Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, always stood his ground, even in the face of withering condemnations from white America. His message was never corrupted, and he never forsook those who sincerely embraced his teaching. In the face of hostile criticism, he often told the story of the donkey that fell into a ditch. He said that every person who came by and saw the donkey in the ditch threw a stone at him. Pretty soon the passersby had thrown so many stones that the ditch filled up and the donkey walked out of the ditch without any further assistance. "Every knock is a boost," Mr. Muhammad would explain.

Louis Farrakhan lives according to that credo. And while there are few references to him in academic literature or elsewhere that do not include the word "racist" alongside his name, I do not believe he is a race-hater or anti-semite.

There is a superior spiritual dimension to the Islamic message taught by the Hon. Elijah Muhammad, which separates his true followers from all miscreants, deviants, and criminals, whether or not they profess to be Muslims. No matter how appealing the sociological and political effects Mr. Muhammad's message may have appeared to those not in the Nation, his message was textbook religious reform: Believe and accept the message, repent from your wicked ways taught by the slave master, and you will find salvation in prayer toward Mecca, in giving charity, in fasting, in the pilgrimage. Mr. Muhammad emphasized obedience and faith in Allah (God) above all else. Period. That is why his followers have always been unarmed since he first taught the message in Detroit in 1931.

When I attended my first Nation meeting, I was carrying a knife in my pocket. I was afraid to walk the streets without it. I was embarrassed when the speaker warned that those of us who carry such weapons carry them for one reason and one reason only: to do harm to other black people. I may have said that the weapon was to "protect myself," but I knew all along exactly from whom I felt I needed protection.

Mr. Muhammad said--and I now believe it's correct--that whenever someone carries such a carnal weapon, that person has made a god out of that weapon, above Allah, because by that action the person has demonstrated that he or she believes the weapon is better able to protect him or her than is the Almighty. Now it is said that this sniper suspect may have participated in the Million Man March. If he did, that was a good thing. On that day in Washington, when as many as 1.4 million mostly black men assembled at the west front of the U.S. Capitol, there was hardly one single crime reported in the entire city. There were no muggings, no burglaries that day. There were no sniper murders in Washington in October 1995 the way the air itself was filled with death in October 2002.

If only our sniper suspect had held onto and tried harder to practice the message of forgiveness, atonement, and personal responsibility that was taught by word and lived out by example at the Million Man March, we might not have seen a dozen of our neighbors gunned down in cold blood around here.

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