ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP)—Moussaoui said as he was led from the courtroom: “America, you lost.” He clapped his hands.
Excuse me, I’m sorry, and I beg your pardon, but the jury’s decision on Moussaoui gives me a very bad feeling. What we witnessed here was not the higher compassion but a dizzy failure of nerve.
From the moment the decision was announced yesterday, everyone, all the parties involved—the cable jockeys, the legal analysts, the politicians, the victim representatives—showed an elaborate and jarring politesse. “We thank the jury.” “I accept the verdict of course.” “We can’t question their hard work.” “I know they did their best.” “We thank the media for their hard work in covering this trial.” “I don’t want to second-guess the jury.”
How removed from our base passions we’ve become. Or hope to seem.
It is as if we’ve become sophisticated beyond our intelligence, savvy beyond wisdom. Some might say we are showing a great and careful generosity, as befits a great nation. But maybe we’re just, or also, rolling in our high-mindedness like a puppy in the grass. Maybe we are losing some crude old grit. Maybe it’s not good we lose it.
No one wants to say, “They should have killed him.” This is understandable, for no one wants to be called vengeful, angry or, far worse, unenlightened. But we should have put him to death, and for one big reason.
This is what Moussaoui did: He was in jail on a visa violation in August 2001. He knew of the upcoming attacks. In fact, he had taken flight lessons to take part in them. He told no one what was coming. He lied to the FBI so the attacks could go forward. He pled guilty last year to conspiring with al Qaeda; at his trial he bragged to the court that he had intended to be on the fifth aircraft, which was supposed to destroy the White House.
He knew the trigger was about to be pulled. He knew innocent people had been targeted, and were about to meet gruesome, unjust deaths.
He could have stopped it. He did nothing. And so 2,700 people died.
* * *
This is what the jury announced yesterday. They did not doubt Moussaoui was guilty of conspiracy. They did not doubt his own testimony as to his guilt. They did not think he was incapable of telling right from wrong. They did not find him insane. They did believe, however, that he had had an unstable childhood, that his father was abusive and then abandoning, and that as a child, in his native France, he’d suffered the trauma of being exposed to racial slurs.
As I listened to the court officer read the jury’s conclusions yesterday I thought: This isn’t a decision, it’s a non sequitur.
Of course he had a bad childhood; of course he was abused. You don’t become a killer because you started out with love and sweetness. Of course he came from unhappiness. So, chances are, did the nice man sitting on the train the other day who rose to give you his seat. Life is hard and sometimes terrible, and that is a tragedy. It explains much, but it is not a free pass.
I have the sense that many good people in our country, normal modest folk who used to be forced to endure being patronized and instructed by the elites of all spheres—the academy and law and the media—have sort of given up and cut to the chase. They don’t wait to be instructed in the higher virtues by the professional class now. They immediately incorporate and reflect the correct wisdom before they’re lectured.
I’m not sure this is progress. It feels not like the higher compassion but the lower evasion. It feels dainty in a way that speaks not of gentleness but fear.
* * *
I happen, as most adults do, to feel a general ambivalence toward the death penalty. But I know why it exists. It is the expression of a certitude, of a shared national conviction, about the value of a human life. It says the deliberate and planned taking of a human life is so serious, such a wound to justice, such a tearing at the human fabric, that there is only one price that is justly paid for it, and that is the forfeiting of the life of the perpetrator. It is society’s way of saying that murder is serious, dreadfully serious, the most serious of all human transgressions.
It is not a matter of vengeance. Murder can never be avenged, it can only be answered.
If Moussaoui didn’t deserve the death penalty, who does? Who ever did?
And if he didn’t receive it, do we still have it?
I don’t want to end with an air of hopelessness, so here’s some hope, offered to the bureau of prisons. I hope he doesn’t get cable TV in his cell. I hope he doesn’t get to use his hour a day in general population getting buff and converting prisoners to jihad. I hope he isn’t allowed visitors with whom he can do impolite things like plot against our country. I hope he isn’t allowed anniversary interviews. I hope his jolly colleagues don’t take captives whom they threaten to kill unless Moussaoui is released.
I hope he doesn’t do any more damage. I hope this is the last we hear of him. But I’m not hopeful about my hopes.