Thursday, May 04, 2006

PEGGY NOONAN, ALONG WITH A BROAD SWATH of the right-wing side of the blogosphere, thinks that Zacarias Moussaoui should have gotten the death penalty, instead of being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Why? Because he knew the 9/11 attacks were being planned and did nothing to stop them:

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.

One excellent answer to this argument comes from Kristen Breitweiser. Breitweiser, whose husband was killed on 9/11, was on Hardball yesterday with Sen. Joseph Biden to discuss the Moussaoui verdict. Crooks and Liars has the video, along with a complete transcript (h/t Mahablog):

... I would appreciate someone asking either Senator Biden or former Mayor Giuliani, if their standard for death is withholding information from the FBI that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks -- how then are we excusing FBI agents Maltbie and Frasca, who were accused, or allegedly accused in the Moussaoui penalty phase itself, of being criminally negligent with regard to giving a FISA warrant. How would you explain George Tenet, who withheld information about two of the 9/11 hijackers for 18 months from the FBI -- information that certainly would have gone a long way into preventing those attacks. And I'd like to know, where are we drawing the line here, what is the threshold, and why are we not holding those types of people in our own government accountable?

These are questions that don't seem to concern many on the right who want someone to pay for 9/11, even if the only someone they have, had no direct role in the attacks. I catch a whiff of this notion in the opening paragraph of John Podhoretz's piece at The Corner on National Review (via Anonymous Liberal) [Emphasis mine]:

Zacarias Moussaoui is the only person to be charged with crimes related to September 11. He pled guilty to involvement in the plot. We have been told that if the FBI had authorized a search of Moussaoui's computer, seized a month before the attacks, we would have been able to prevent the attacks.

Somehow, for John Podhoretz, the fact that Moussaoui is the only person charged with 9/11-related crimes is relevant in and of itself to the sentence he should have received. "By God, if we can't get Osama bin Laden, at least we can fry Moussaoui!"

And isn't it striking that Podhoretz's third sentence references the same point made by Kristin Breitweiser -- that the 9/11 attacks could have been stopped if the FBI had authorized a search of Moussaoui's computer, which they had seized a month before the attacks -- and yet the obvious conclusion drawn by Breitweiser -- that we should be holding those FBI agents accountable, too -- does not even occur to Podhoretz, who goes on in the following paragraphs about Moussaoui's part in planning 9/11:

Having judged that he was a participant in the September 11 planning, jurors nonetheless ruled that Moussaoui was not responsible for the deaths on September 11 -- though they apparently acknowledge his involvement in the planning of the attacks. And they have chosen to impose a life sentence -- presumably because some of the stiff-necked among them would not yield to those who wanted to impose the death penalty.

There is only one justifiable reason for a juror to make this choice. That juror has to believe the death penalty is wrong under any and all circumstances. To imagine that there can be any mitigating circumstance regarding Moussaoui's actual guilt is moral idiocy of the highest order.

The problem is that the jury apparently did not feel that the prosecution met its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Moussaoui's involvement in the planning went beyond knowing it was being planned and wanting it to happen. And that, as Anonymous Liberal points out, does not constitute, in a legal sense, helping to plan the attacks:

Moussaoui is undoubtedly a bad person and clearly more than a little crazy. But you don't just toss the facts and the law out the window because someone is "bad" and was associated with even worse people. That's what makes us better than the jihadists we're fighting.

Scott Lemieux over at Lawyers, Guns and Money rejects any linkage between supporting the death penalty, or having mixed feelings about it, and believing it should have been imposed in this case:

While I certainly don't see this as a reason for celebration, and while as longtime readers know (and I will return to sometime in the near future) I'm a tepid opponent of the death penalty, I'm inclined to agree with the Talking Dog: "As a result of this legally correct verdict, following a government prosecution rife with misconduct and a virtually impossible burden given FBI agent testimony that no matter what Moussaoui said, Bureau chieftains could not be convinced of the merits of a 9-11 plot, Moussaoui will be automatically sentenced to life in prison...Let's just say it's gratifying to see a judge and jury do their job the way the law actually intended." For the reasons that Talk Left has collected in voluminous detail--see here in particular--a death penalty verdict in this case would have been pretty appalling. A death penalty case requires a level of professionalism that the state manifestly failed to meet here, and given Moussaoui's exceptionally tangential-at-best connections to 9/11 I can't say it's a tragedy.

There are other reasons to be thankful that Moussaoui was not sentenced to death. Maha points to a huge one: It's really not smart "to execute people who might have unique personal information about a historically significant event. Moussaoui's not talking now, but in ten years, or twenty years, he may change his mind."

Which totally gives the lie to Peggy Noonan's pious blathering about the death penalty being about justice, not vengeance:

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?

Nonsense. Of course it's about vengeance. What else could it be about, when you're so invested in making someone like Moussaoui "pay" with his own life for the lives taken on 9/11 that it's more important to you that he should die, than that he should "live to tell" -- in a tiny cell in a top-security prison for the remainder of his days -- what he undoubtedly still knows about how the events of that terrible day were planned, and who planned them?

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