Sunday, May 07, 2006

Will Moussaoui Case Prompt a Rethink on Capital Punishment for Terrorists?

The Jurors Deny It, But Risk of a New Round of al-Qaida Terrorist Attacks in U.S. May Have Influenced Their Decision to Spare 9/11 Suspect From the Death Penalty

By Skeeter Sanders

By his own admission, Zacarias Moussaoui was a foot soldier for Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network of Islamic extremists.

During his trial as the only man prosecuted in this country for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Moussaoui said again and again that he was willing to die for his cause -- and if that meant that the lives of more Americans would be taken in the process, that was fine with him.

From the beginning of his trial, there was never any doubt that Moussaoui was guilty of being a participant in the plot to carry out the 9/11 attacks -- he boastfully admitted to it in court when he pleaded guilty. The only unanswered question was what penalty would be imposed on him: Death or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

When the sentencing phase of Moussaoui's trial began in March, many trial-watchers thought the prosecution was certain to win a death sentence against him.

After all, when Moussaoui testified -- in defiance of his defense lawyers, who wanted to keep him off the witness stand -- he practically demanded to be given the death penalty. And the prosecution certainly wanted Moussaoui to be put to death, to send a message to other terrorists that they would meet the same fate.

It has long been the central argument of death penalty supporters that paying the ultimate price -- losing one's own life -- acts as a deterrent to people committing violent acts that result in the death or severe maiming of the people who are the targets of such acts.

Death Penalty May Embolden al-Qaida, Rather Than Deter It

There's just one problem with that argument: It doesn't work with al-Qaida. To the contrary, executing Moussaoui would likely have emboldened the terror network to attack again, rather than deter it.

We've got to face facts here: We're not dealing with a singular violent individual. Nor are we dealing with a violence-prone criminal gang. We're dealing with an international network of radical Islamic extremists who have absolutely no fear of death whatsoever and thus could care less about the consequences of their actions.

And if al-Qaida's actions bring about lethal retribution against its members, they're more than willing -- indeed, eager -- to retaliate and kill even more of their perceived enemies. And they're willing to do it in the name of God.

There are no extremists more driven than religious extremists. There is no psychological force more powerful than religion. Religious extremists, with their absolute belief that they're "doing God's work," will do anything -- even acts that most of the world abhors as the diametric opposite of God's will.

Lest we forget, Hitler sought to make Nazism a religion in his march to power in Germany in the 1920s, repeatedly invoking "Providence" -- God -- in his speeches (Read William L. Shirer's Berlin Diary if you don't believe it). History has shown how extreme the Nazis were.

And let's not forget the Taliban. Their five-year reign of terror in Afghanistan ranks right up there with the Third Reich, including a violent pogrom against the country's minority Buddhists. Even the theocratic mullahs of Iran considered the Taliban's brand of Islam too extreme.

Prosecution's Case for Executing Moussaoui Was Weak From the Start

Never mind that the government's case for executing Moussaoui was weak to begin with -- hobbled at the start by the revelation that a government lawyer improperly coached aviation witnesses before their testimony, prompting Judge Leonnie Brinkema to bar those witnesses.

Never mind that Moussaoui had been arrested while in flight school in Minnesota over a month before the 9/11 attacks.

Never mind that testimony and evidence presented at Moussaoui's trial showed that FBI officials in Washington never took him seriously as a possible threat to the U.S.

And never mind that on that deadly morning in September 2001, Moussaoui, a Frenchman of Moroccan descent, was sitting a jail cell in Minneapolis, awaiting deportation.

There's little doubt that, in light of those factors, the prosecution's central argument for the death penalty -- that Moussaoui was an active participant in the 9/11 plot -- simply didn't hold up, according to the jury foreman.

Moussaoui Had No Desire to be a Martyr? Ger Real!

But Moussaoui's own outbursts and testimony in court, in open defiance of his defense lawyers, were something that neither the jurors -- nor anyone else closely following the trial -- could ignore.

The jurors issued a public statement after their decision that they didn't believe he wanted to be executed because his death would "create a martyr for radical Muslim fundamentalists in general and to al-Qaida in particular."

But this blogger doesn't believe that for a New York minute.

On the witness stand, Moussaoui:

*** defiantly declared his allegiance to to al-Qaida,

*** swore his hatred for Americans -- even matter-of-factly telling the court how he had looked forward to killing Americans,

*** acknowledged that he had lied to the FBI after his arrest so that the 9/11 attacks could go forward,

*** chillingly told the court of his intended role to hijack a fifth jetliner on 9/11 and crash it into the White House.

Possibility of New al-Qaida Attack Impossible to Ignore

By now, more than four years after 9/11, one has to be very naive to believe that al-Qaida wouldn't launch new terrorist attacks on U.S. soil -- possibly including the use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons of mass destruction -- had the jurors deciding Moussaoui's fate chosen the death penalty.

It certainly was in the back of the minds of some of the relatives and friends of the more than 3,000 people who lost their lives on 9/11 -- including some who have been longtime supporters of the death penalty.

Lee Ielpi, a retired firefighter whose son, also a firefighter, was killed in the World Trade Center attack, made no secret of his desire to see Moussaoui sentenced to death.

"I felt all along he [Moussaoui] should get the death penalty," Ielpi told the Los Angeles Times. "But if it's life in prison with no possibility of parole, then he'll rot in prison where he belongs.

"Because he's not getting the death penalty, he may not be as big a martyr as he wanted to be," continued Ielpi, who is vice president of the September 11th Families' Association. "But there are people who will use him as a martyr anyway."

True enough. There's always the chance that al-Qaida will attack the U.S. again regardless of what Moussaoui's sentence would have been. But the likelihood of another attack would have been much greater had Moussaoui been sentenced to death.That likelihood simply cannot be ignored.

Moussaoui Issued Thinly-Veiled Warning of New Attacks

Richard Allen Greene, a BBC reporter covering the trial, mused that in the end, Moussaoui did not seize enough rope to hang himself. And perhaps -- despite his chilling testimony in court -- he never meant to.

Why else would a man many assumed was actively seeking to be executed as a martyr for al-Qaida react to his sentence by shouting, "America, you lost! [Prosecutor David] Novak, You lost! I won!" as he was being escorted out of the courtroom, Greene wondered.

Yet Moussaoui himself raised the specter of more al-Qaida attacks in this country during his final pre-sentencing remarks to the court. He said Americans did not understand people like himself and Muhammad Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, who crashed the first plane into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Moussaoui then issued this thinly-veiled warning: "We will come back another day," cursing the U.S. and praising Bin Laden. "You will never get him!" he swore.

And the jurors say that they didn't believe that Moussaoui didn't want to become a martyr? You think that his warning of new attacks didn't figure in their decision to spare him from the death penalty? If you believe that, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn that I'd like to sell you.

Life in Supermax Prison: A Fate Worse Then Death?

In any case, the sentence Moussaoui did get -- life imprisonment without the possibility of parole -- could turn out to be a fate worse than death. For Moussaoui will spend the rest of his days at Supermax, the super-maximum-security federal prison in Florence, Colorado.

At Supermax, Moussaoui will be in very notorious company:

*** Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center blast;

*** Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski;

*** Terry Nichols, Timothy McVeigh's accomplice in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing;

*** Richard Reid, the so-called "shoe bomber" who Moussaoui testified was to join him in what would have been the fifth 9/11 hijacking;

*** Eric Rudolph, who planted the bomb that exploded at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and also bombed a number of abortion clinics in Georgia and Alabama.

All, like Moussaoui, are serving life without parole — spending their days alone in soundproof, 7' x 12' cells. They're under continuous strict supervision 24 hours a day. They're locked down in their cells for all but one hour each day.

Except for that one hour, the inmates at Supermax are not allowed out of their cells even for their only visitors -- lawyers, doctors or prison officials; the visitors must see the inmates in their cells.

And Supermax is nearing its capacity. Built to house 490 of the nation's worst criminals -- all of them in solitary confinement -- the 12-year-old facility already has 400 inmates.

Moussaoui will become Supermax prisoner No. 401. Indeed, under those conditions, spending the rest of one's life a prisoner in Supermax with utterly no chance of release could very well be a fate worse than death; it can drive one totally insane.

And that, to me, is a most fitting punishment for crimes of utter insanity against humanity.


Volume I, Number 24
Copyright 2006, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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