Does 9/11 Conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui Deserve the Death Penalty?

As he was being lead to a brief recess in the middle of one of the many days of deliberation in his death penalty hearing, Zacarias Moussaoui turned and shouted at the judge, the jury, the prosecution, his own legal defense, and at all of us, “there is more than one way to skin the American pigs.” (1)

Earlier that day, he had been shown slides and photographs of mangled limbs and body parts strewn about the burning rubble of the World Trade Center, to which he had reacted with smiles and nods, the same curt appreciativeness you or I would display when viewing a relative’s vacation slideshow.

For weeks, Moussaoui’s own defense team has had to deal with his wild accusations and borderline-contempt of court outbursts. He has claimed that his own lawyers are trying to kill him, that Allah will spare him out of hand, even that President Bush will pardon him should he recieve the death penalty. At times he is belligerent towards his own case, speaking of martyrdom and the belssing he will recieve for his participation in Jihad. His words are, in the opinion of the prosecution, “like venom.” So absolutely poisonous are his words, equally on par with the engraged outbursts of Saddam Hussein in his own trial on the other side of the Earth, that he seems to have no desire to argue for his defense, only to make as grand a spectacle as possible before he is delivered into the hands of Allah, just as have so many martyrs before him, whether they be Muslims slain in the Crusades or young Palestinian men with hefty backpacks and prayer books. (1)

“Enough is enough,” says prosecution attorney David Raskin. “It is time to put an end to his hatred and venom. It is time to sentence Zacarias Moussaoui to death.” (1)

But is that necessarily the best solution in this scenario?

Moussaoui himself has done an excellent job of writing himself into an archetype. He yells and screams at the “infidels,” disregarding the laws and procedues of what he percieves to be an evil pagan-state in favor of, ostensibly, his own pride. His treatment of his own lawyers illustrates his complete lack of interest in his own survival. In essence, he has communicated to his accusers his ultimately modest wish: to die, a fate the prosuection agrees with. If death were not his wish, he would make more of an effort at self-defense than claiming that a dream told him that President Bush would pardon him, were he to recieve the death penalty.

When he first pleaded guilty to his involvement in the 9/11 attacks, his refusal to give up his conspirators, and his obstruction of justice during his arrest, were considered tantamount to murder by U.S. defense attorneys, and they promptly sentenced him to life in prison and set up a death penalty hearing. At first, Moussaoui was agreeable, he at first actually stated his intent to plead for the death penalty. Now, however, his interest seems to have shifted. His mind changes and suddenly he enters a guilty plea, and the nation is left to drag its way through his trial for weeks. Why? What was he hoping for? What, exactly, is going on in Zacarias Moussaoui’s head? (2)

It is clear through his actions, and indeed his own stated plea, that he wants to die. He wants our courts to kill him for his actions on our soil. But why not just enter a guilty plea and be done with it? Because, thanks to his trial, this article will be written. Cameras will be trained on him up until the last needle goes in. People will be watching, here and abroad, and everyone in the West will see how the madman Zacarias Moussaoui spent a few weeks as the resident ambassador for radical Islam, trying to make us fear what he wants us to percieve as unshaking contempt for the infidels. Meanwhile, everyone who rallies behind the ideologies of Representative Moussaoui will be inspired, watching as a lone man flings insults at the heretical United States, sworn enemy of all those who believe in the soil of Saudi Arabia as absolutely sacrosanct. They will see him march into the execution chamber with his head held high, a smile on his face, and words of hatred and defiant on his lips until the very end. Those who long to destroy the United States will see this, and they will be proud: they will take it upon themselves to be as unafraid of death and as belligerent towards democracy as Zacarias Moussaoui, who may become a recruiting tool as powerful as Abu Ghraib.

If we dismiss recent questions of his mental competance, as attorneys for both the defense and the prosecution largely have following speculation that Moussaoui might be schizophrenic, then we must assume that he is fully aware of what he is doing. His awareness of the death sentence he practically imposes upon himself with his outrageous behavior tells us that, if the prosecution gets its way, so will Moussaoui. His death may become a symbol for everything that the United States is currently warring with. What alternative, then? The defense has posited that he be allowed to die the “long slow death of a common criminal,” instead of the inspiring fate of a long-term suicide bomber. What celebration is there if, rather than being offed all at once, Moussaoui languishes in the super-maximum security prison that is his current residence? Will extreme right-wing Muslim fundamentalism still be singing songs of the decrepit old man muttering incoherently, twenty or thirty or fifty years after his one quasi-battle? No, they won’t. Heroes and martyrs die in glory, the rest of us live it out to the end. (1)

Is suppressing our rage against Moussaoui’s amusement at the suffering of our people and our national character worth it, even if it means prolonging his life? I posit that it is. I put it to you that the application of our death penalty laws to this man would be disastrous, and in fact, vindictive on some level of the charges of barbarity and brutality hurled at us by the likes of Zacarias Moussaoui. We fear being too compassionate on a man who is clearly responsible, on some level, for thousands of American deaths, but now it seems, that desire to appear strong has overrun our reason. The calls for execution, coming mostly from the American right-wing, are misguided in their simple agreement with the best thing that could ever happen to Moussaoui. It is time to step back and re-examine ourselves, our courts, and our values. Is death the highest possible punishment? Is death, by definition, a worse thing than rotting in a maximum-security prison for a few decades, even if the executed goes to his death looking forward to an eternity in paradise? No, it is not. The re-evaluation of the approach we take to justice is critical in this age, as the Islamic terrorists one by one are brought to trial. We must think what it means to kill someone, and what it means to imprison someone, and most of all, we must realize that one of those things is actually a blessing, and the other one is synonymous with damnation.

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