To Kill, or Not to Kill

Zacarias Moussaoui will be sentenced to die. It’s a foregone conclusion. Ever since the judge in the sentencing trial cleared the way for execution, and the jury agreed, despite the bungling performance by government lawyers, Mr. Moussaoui has been doomed.

Some people have been struggling with this. Richard Cohen, a columnist for the Washington Post, has written that he would rather see Mousaoui live out a long life in prison than make him the martyr he so desperately wants to be. One of the 9/11 relatives testified at the sentencing trial that she feels the same way.

Mr. Moussaoui’s role in the 9/11 attacks is still murky at best, despite his boasting in the courthouse. Captured Al Qaeda leaders have indicated that Moussaoui had nothing approaching the leading role in the attacks that he claims. It is possible that his unstable nature left his terrorist handlers little choice but to push him to the margins. Yet, he was one of the few Al Qaeda members in this country that had been receiving flight training prior to the attacks, whereas the bulk of the hijackers who carried out the attack were strictly muscle. It is clear that Zacarias Moussaoui came to this country as an agent of Al Qaeda with an assignment to carry out a terrorist attack and kill Americans. Whatever ambiguities remain about the particulars is offset by this fact.

Unlike other prisoners we may or may not have in custody in the United States or in any number of secret locations throughout the world, Mr. Moussaoui’s prosecution has for the most part been conducted in the light of public scrutiny. But since he is the only terrorist connected to the 9/11 attacks that has been publicly called to account (he was fortunate enough to have been arrested prior to the attacks, before various laws and executive decisions hit the books which placed terrorist suspects in a veritable black hole of justice), he embodies quite the psychological burden for Americans.

His execution will be called justice and revenge at the same time. Modern justice systems by their very nature remove revenge from the equation of justice. But there are times when the two are intertwined and all but indistinguishable. Moussaoui’s case is one of those occasions. His foreknowledge of attacks that left 3,000 people dead and his unwillingness to prevent them — in fact, his active participation in preparing for these attacks makes him an accomplice in their commission. His would seem to be one of the signal cases that the death penalty was designed for. But he will go the gallows with the blessing of most of the populace less for what he did than for what he represents. His passionate hatred for this country knows no bounds. He cannot be reformed, nor can he ever be released into society. Not only is he a terrorist, he is the last remaining embodiment of the hijackers. Executing him is exorcising them. When he is dead, tension caused by the threat of terrorism in this country will ease ever so slightly, even though Moussaoui has not been a threat ever since his incarceration.

What some people are worried about is whether or not his execution will be seen as a rallying cry for Islamism. Will he be hailed as a hero of Islam, and used as a recruiting tool in order to create more terrorists? Although his execution will be marked by the Islamic world, and especially by its radical, terrorist sects, his death will be naught more than a raindrop on a lake of negative feelings towards the United States.

Executing him will martyr him, but how could it possibly be more damaging than a bomb falling on a wedding ceremony in Najaf, a Marine kicking in an innocent man’s door in Fallujah at four in the morning, or our seemingly endless troubles with torture? The things that keep piling up in our conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the war on terror, serve to feed Islamism more effectively than a thousand martyred terrorists ever could.

Those who are concerned about the message we will be sending to the Islamic world with his execution need to pull back a little further. There’s a forest around those trees. The debate over his execution should stay in the same domain as all other execution debates: is it humane for a county to execute its prisoners? This is the proper question because it removes the horrible idea of revenge from consideration, and forces us to consider the morality of government sponsored killing both at home and abroad as we prosecute any number of wars.