Brought to justice

courtroom sketch

Or made a scapegoat?

The long, often bizarre trial of Zacarais Moussaoui for his role in the 9/11 attacks is nearing its conclusion. The jury will soon decide whether to sentence him to death or to life in prison. In my view, a death sentence would be wrong.

Let's be clear about one thing: Moussaoui is one of the bad guys. He admits as much. But the government's case is based on a flawed premise. And because of that, putting Moussaoui to death would be an act of frustration and revenge, not of justice.

The crux of the government case is that Moussaoui, who was in custody at the time, knew about the plan to attack on 9/11 but did not reveal the plan to his interrogators so they could stop the plot and prevent the deaths of 3000 Americans.

Problem #1: Assumption that the government could have, would have, stopped the plot if only they had known.

Nick Anderson
Nick Anderson

Yes, it's possible that the government could have stopped the plot — anything's possible, I guess — but the suggestion that they would have is a real stretch. There is ample testimony from the 9/11 Commission and elsewhere that the government did not capitalize on the information it did have. In fact, Moussaoui's court-appointed defense attorneys brilliantly played for the jury a compilation of video clips of a succession of officials saying there was just nothing else they could have done to prevent the attacks.

To believe that anything Moussaoui could have said would have prevent the attacks is to believe that the government would have acted completely differently. Come on, if a presidential daily briefing that "Bin Laden determined to attack inside the US" can't stir the administration to action, what will?

Problem #2: Execution for what he didn't do, not what he did do. This is a really slippery slope. If you're going to start putting people to death for things they didn't do to prevent the 9/11 attacks, then there is a long list of government officials who ought to be executed for the same reason.

The people who actually carried out the 9/11 attacks are all dead. Moussaoui was not one of them. So the most you can say is that Moussaoui wanted to participate, might have participated if he hadn't been in jail, planned to attack some day some how. That's conspiracy. I don't know that there's any precedent for executing anyone for conspiracy.

Stuart Carlson
Stuart Carlson

Moussaoui has been his own worst enemy during the trial, if you start from the presumption that he would want to avoid death. He has expressed his delight over the attacks, derided his court-appointed lawyers in front of the jury, scorned the witnesses who told of their suffering because of the attacks, and so on. But that presumption may be in error. We really don't understand these bad guys, and Moussaoui may want to martyr himself for the cause, thinking perhaps that he will incite further attacks in retribution. To us, he doesn't look entirely sane. But then, most of us have a hard time thinking that anyone who would fly a plane into a skyscraper or blow himself up in a suicide bomb attack is sane.

If you can believe what has been learned from the interrogation of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 plot, Moussaoui was a lesser player, considered somewhat unreliable because of the time he had spent in the west. Former Representative Tim Roemer (D-IN), a member of the 9/11 commission, believes that Moussaoui was an Al-Qaeda "mistake." (On the other hand, KSM's information surely came out as a result of torture, and it's common knowledge that people will say anything when they're being tortured.)

blind justice

People are understandably frustrated that the perpetrator of the attacks, Osama bin Laden, is still hiding out somewhere. GWB said he wanted Osama "dead or alive" but soon turned his attention to bringing down Saddam Hussein. But to take out that frustration on Moussaoui would be wrong. By all means, lock him up. Putting him to death would chip away still more from our values and system of justice. Lady Justice is supposed to be blind, not stupid.