"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Monday, April 17, 2006


Like many Americans, I find myself watching the Zacarias Moussaoui trial with a combination of interest and disgust. It's much like watching the proverbial train wreck; painfully disturbing, yet so fascinating that it's hard to look away. Moussaoui is probably the single least sympathetic individual ever to stand trial in the history of this country's legal justice system. To the consternation of his defense team, he has gone out of his way to curse, mock and insult the victims of 9/11 and their families, clapping his hands and smiling with glee at video of the planes hitting the twin towers. His only regret about that day, he claims, is that it was not followed by further attacks and that more people did not die. Only Osama Bin Laden, were we to apprehend and try him, would likely generate more revulsion.

While there has always been debate concerning the morality of the death penalty, most would agree that there could hardly be a person more deserving of it than Moussaoui -- and therein lies the paradox at the heart of the difference between Western society and the fundamentalist radicals he claims to represent. On the one hand, we would like to show the rest of the world that the United States has compassion and respect for life unequaled by any other nation on earth. To spare this despicable terrorist -- convicted of complicity in the worst crime ever committed against the American people -- would show clearly (we might like to think) how enlightened and civilized we are. But while such an act of mercy might resonate with much of the world, it is unlikely to be effective against the very people who seek to perpetrate these crimes against us. We in the West celebrate life, in all its diverse and wondrous forms, and regard it as the most blessed gift a human can possess. Death is a last resort, something to be avoided and postponed at all costs. To Islamic radicals, however, life on this earth is but a temporary pit stop on the way to Paradise, where wine, women, and endless pleasures await them. Death is to be welcomed, a glorious reward that many can hardly wait to collect.

So, this creates a no-win dilemma for the jury considering Moussaoui's fate. If they spare him, it sends a message to the radicals that we are a weak and ineffective society. But to execute him would make him a martyr; for many Islamic fundamentalists, there is no greater glory than to stand up to your enemies, curse them to their faces, and then be put to death by them. We would be giving him exactly what he wants.

The trial has caused many of us to relive the chaos and horror we felt on September 11th. Few things have been more gripping than the prosecution's use of testimony by victim's families, graphic video of the event (including footage of people choosing to jump from the building to their death rather than be burned alive), and perhaps most disturbingly, the 31-minute tape of the Flight 93 cockpit voice recorder. For the first time, many have now heard (or read in the transcript) exactly what the last few minutes of life were like for the heroic passengers and crew of the doomed jetliner. This comes as the Universal Studios movie "United 93" is about to appear in theatres on April 28th; hopefully, the timing of these two events is merely coincidental, and not a cynical attempt by the movie's producers to use the trial to generate publicity for the film. However, the movie is controversial enough even without the added emotion of the trial. Despite the fact that it was made with the full cooperation and support of the passengers families (and a portion of the proceeds from the film will go into a fund benefiting the victims), there is still a significant percentage of the public who feel it is too soon to transform the tragedy into entertainment. Writer and director Paul Greengrass states that the basis for the movie is "the belief that by examining this single event, something much larger can be found -- the shape of our world today." Nevertheless, there have been reports of people walking out in protest from theatres where the trailer for the upcoming release has been shown.

September 11, 2001 is one of those dates in our history where everyone will always remember where they were and exactly what they were doing when it happened. It was the same way for many of us old enough to remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or for the generation before that, the attack on Pearl Harbor. I can recall the day with stark clarity. I was the engineer for the local University radio station, and part of my routine was to go through all the equipment when I arrived for work each day to make sure everything was in good order before the students began classes. While checking our Associated Press news computer to see if it had crashed overnight (which it was prone to do), a bulletin came in about a "plane hitting the World Trade Center in New York". Like many people who heard these initial reports, I misunderstood the gravity of what had happened -- thinking the "plane" was a small private aircraft that had wandered off course, or perhaps the pilot had a heart attack or otherwise became disabled while at the controls. So I continued about my maintenance tasks with no particular sense of urgency, wandering back to my office for a coffee break about a half hour or so later. Hardly anyone was in the building yet. At that point, I remembered the earlier news story and flipped on the TV set in my office out of curiosity, expecting to see the tail of a Cessna or Piper Cub sticking out of the side of the building.

Moments after I tuned in to the live coverage, the second plane slammed into the the south tower. For the next several hours I stood transfixed, staring at the TV in open-mouth shock as the events of that terrible day continued to unfold (and be replayed over and over again). My overwhelming sensation was incredulity: "how could this be happening in America?" I am sure most of us felt the same, or worse.

So, what to do with Moussaoui? Personally, I think he should be granted his wish to die. This will show that not only are we a just society that holds a person accountable for their crimes, but we are also gracious enough to grant him the ticket to Heaven that he so dearly desires. However, lethal injection is too good for this terrorist: he should be forced to walk the plank, like the pirates of olden days. But instead of dropping him into deep shark-infested waters, the plank should be suspended at the top of the Empire State Building, 102 stories above the streets of New York. Then, let Moussaoui experience first-hand the final moments of the tortured souls forced to plunge to their deaths on September 11th, his last view of this earth being the Mecca of capitalism that he so despises. It would seem only fitting. Even though we know in our hearts that such vengeance would be wrong, it might bring some sense of closure for many who are frustrated by our inability to apprehend and punish the true masterminds behind the tragedy.

On the other hand, we could lock him up and make him live out the rest of his natural life in prison. For him, that would be a fate worse than death.


  • At 4/17/2006 04:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Excellent idea. The only suggestion I would add is televise "The Live Dive" on pay-per-view, with **100%** of the proceeds going to the victims familiys. (Nobody else should make a nickel off it.) I think a lot of people, including me, would pay to see that scumbag go "splat".

  • At 4/17/2006 05:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    He wants us to put him to death. Nothing would give him more satisfaction. I say lock him up with minimum human contact for the rest of his life. Let him live with what he has done. I wish him a long, lonely and desolate life.

  • At 4/17/2006 09:14:00 PM, Blogger DogMa said…

    I think I agree with Casey68...even though anonymous's idea is great too. Whatever causes the most pain for him I like.

    I'm torn.

    What about a vote. The suvivors of 911 and families of the victims decide?

    I dunno.


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