Moussaoui's slouch to justice

Posted: Apr 20, 2006 12:05 AM

In 2001, critics worried that the so-called "rocket docket" in Virginia would steamroll Zacarias Moussaoui in a rush to judgment. Several years, motions and court delays later, it's a marvel that federal prosecutors managed to get to the point where jurors are deliberating on whether to sentence Moussaoui, 37, who has pleaded guilty, to death or life in prison.

Today, if anything, the public seems inclined to yawn through the end of the trial, while editorial writers twist themselves in knots as they work to spare Moussaoui from the execution he deserves.

Since this case has dragged on so long, let me supply a few facts: Osama bin Laden selected Moussaoui to fly a plane into the White House. Al-Qaida paid $14,000 to send Moussaoui to flight school to learn to pilot big planes. When he was detained on immigration charges in August 2001, Moussaoui had two knives and other paraphernalia similar to that used by the Sept. 11 hijackers.

There is only one question -- and it probably will never be answered -- and that is whether Moussaoui was supposed to fly a plane on Sept. 11 or later. The 9-11 commission found that Moussaoui likely "was being primed as a possible pilot" for the Sept. 11 attacks. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, has said Moussaoui was being saved for a "second wave" attack. Either way, he's guilty.

Moussaoui was a knowledgeable member of a plot that robbed nearly 3,000 individuals of their lives. In his guilty plea, he admitted that he lied to the FBI in order to enable others to carry out the Sept. 11 attacks.

Of course, Moussaoui's attorneys will use what arguments they can to save him. They've found experts who believe Moussaoui is a paranoid schizophrenic. But it's Moussaoui's courtroom antics that have impressed the chattering classes. Moussaoui's self-incriminating testimony let jurors know that his only regret is that more Americans didn't die. Ergo, pundits reason, he must be not bloodthirsty, but willfully self-destructive.

A Washington Post story reported last week, "Some legal experts wondered if he was using reverse psychology with the jurors yesterday, expressing a wish for life when his real aim was to die a martyr." (How about: Moussaoui was using reverse-reverse psychology and his real aim is to be spared the death penalty by making people think he wants to die a martyr?)

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen opined, "Had he simply not taken the stand and let his lawyers talk for him, he might have averted the death penalty."

Ever notice how death-penalty opponents love to argue that life imprisonment is worse than execution -- even though death row inmates' copious appeals deny that argument? That argument has returned.

"Let him rot," the Hartford Courant editorialized. Don't sentence Moussaoui to death, when "he deserves to live his worst dream, which is to spend his remaining years looking at four bare walls in a cell separated from everyone else and monitored round the clock." The Los Angeles Times editorialized, "Capital punishment gives (jihadists like Moussaoui) the martyrdom they crave."

Of course, the Times and the Post's Cohen would oppose the death penalty even for Osama bin Laden himself. And it's a safe bet that if jurors do not sentence Moussaoui to death, then in the future they'll be arguing that if a man involved in close to 3,000 homicides can beat the death rap, then jurors would be wrong to mete out a capital sentence to a man who, say, has killed only two people.

The Times argued that the death penalty "debases our society." Nice sounding words -- but that's a mantra, not an argument.

It debases a society when a group of hateful extremists murder nearly 3,000 innocent people and there is so little outrage. It debases a society when elites are so concerned about feeling civilized that they fool themselves into believing that life behind bars can atone for so much senseless carnage. It cannot.