By Richard Cohen
The way things are going, the United States government will succeed where Zacarias Moussaoui could not. This convicted terrorist, this whack job with a suicidal bent, will almost certainly be put to death -- which is one more death than he was able to manage on his own. In the end, Moussaoui may turn out to be a suicide bomber on a four-year fuse.
Moussaouis fate is of no concern to me. He is a very bad man, complicit in an evil plot for which he claims a central, though probably exaggerated, role. Whatever the case, he certainly set out to kill innocent Americans and whether he actually did so or not seems beside the point. He was in a position to abort the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and he did nothing to stop them. For that, he may die. So be it.
Nonetheless, while the American sense of justice might be satisfied, that is not how many other people will see it. Instead, they might marvel at how much effort had gone into the killing of a single man. They will note his trial and the lengthy part of it devoted to determining if he is worthy of the death penalty and then whether or not he will get it. The process is almost a parody of justice -- a laborious procedure to carry out what most of us recognize is nothing more than revenge. Call it justice if you will, we all know what it really is.
That, of course, is probably Moussaouis take on it as well. He seems determined to become a martyr. He might have slipped the noose after the government bollixed up its own case when a lawyer coached some witnesses. Had he simply not taken the stand and let his lawyers talk for him, he might have averted the death penalty. Not only did he insist on testifying, he was insulting and unfeeling and downright hateful. Here was a man crying out for execution. With the governments help, he will attain what he always wanted -- martyrdom.
If I had my way, I would deny Moussaoui his opportunity. I would do so not just because it is pretty clear the man is crazy and, on account of that, he played a marginal role at best in the 9/11 plot, but because I would not complete the plot for him. I would not grant him what he wanted from the day he stepped foot in America -- his own death. If, in his case, the punishment is to fit the crime, then he would suffer most by spending the rest of his life behind bars. When he dies of old age, he will have been forgotten. In no place will people gather to mark his death. That will not happen if he is executed.
Of course, I would not seek his death in any case. I am opposed to capital punishment -- not for Moussaouis sake or for another guys, but for our own. The taking of life is something we should not permit government to do. In the first place, life is inviolate. Second, governments have abused this power in the past and will do so in the future. It is no accident that Europe bans the death penalty. Under Hitler, Stalin and others, Europeans learned what government can do.
Societies have their own, peculiar, reasons for taking life. Afghanistan was about to execute a man for converting from Islam to Christianity. To many Afghans, this seemed inarguably to be the right thing to do. In Iraq, Awad Haman Bander, a former judge under Saddam Hussein, confessed to sentencing 148 Shiites to death at one time. It was all legal, he said, with the proper papers being signed and confessions in order. Nothing out of the ordinary. Stamp, stamp. Take them away.
It is naive, I know, but it would be wonderful if the United States showed that as a matter of principle, it does not take a life. It is naive because other governments would not follow -- not right away, anyway. But in time, anything is possible and just as we, bit by bit, have restricted the death penalty so that it is rarely imposed, so may the rest of the world restrain its blood thirst.
Zacarias Moussaouis execution will do no good. We will see it as justice, but so will he. With a lot of money and immense effort, we will give some of the world another martyr -- and Osama bin Laden can finally close the book on his most successful mission.
2006, Washington Post Writers Group