Thursday, May 4, 2006

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeful

The verdict is in: convicted 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui has been sentenced to life in prison.

That means I won't have to write any letters to the editor or op-ed pieces explaining why his life should be spared, as I did when convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was set to be executed (as he eventually was). I'll just save my would-be op-ed for this blog, for future reference.

The jury's decision was wise. There were a number of reasons that Moussaoui should have been spared the death penalty, some unique to his case, some part of a common thread running through all potential or actual capital punishment cases.

1. He is likely insane.
This was, in fact, one of the conclusions by some of the jurors who decided Moussaoui's fate. He is paranoid and delusional, though this is not necessarily the case of all who are homicidal. But at any rate, in most Western countries it is now considered cruel and unusual to execute people with a certain diminished mental capacity. My opposition to the death penalty in general (see below) negates this very principle (since it proscribes virtually all death penalty cases), but the fact is that this is what exists in the United States as a guiding principle, and it certainly applied in Moussaoui's case.

2. He did not actually kill anyone.
Ultimately, Moussaoui missed his chance to hijack a plane full of innocent people and crash it into a symbol of American hubris. Had he not been in jail, he likely would have, but we don't know that for sure. There is some evidence, in fact, that some of the 9/11 hijackers did not know, when they hijacked the planes, that they were on what was ultimately a suicide mission. Would they have gone ahead with this, had they known?

It's a hypothetical, to be sure, and maybe not germane to Moussaoui's case, but we don't know what kind of change of heart—due to a glimmer of humanity or a sudden flash of fear of dying or intervention by the hand of God—may have been possible in the minutes, hours, or even days before 9/11, had Moussaoui not been in a Minnesota jail.

Killing someone as punishment for mere conspiracy (i.e., when they have not actually killed anyone themselves) goes beyond proportional punishment. Life imprisonment, as both a punitive and a preventative measure, is far more appropriate.

Here in Korea, in response to a series of particularly bizarre rapes, the National Assembly considered passage of a bill that would have allowed capital punishment in cases of rape where a family member was forced to watch. As cruel and horrific as rape is, execution for that crime goes beyond proportion. Similarly, people in China are executed for economic crimes, such as embezzlement of large sums of money, a punishment that goes even further away from the nature and severity of the crime.

Even if I thought that the death penalty were justifiable, I don't think it should be applied in any case where no one has actually died. There were four planes that were successfully hijacked on which all the passengers and crew died and through which three buildings were targeted and many people killed. Moussaoui was on none of those planes; he hijacked none of them, even if he had planned to be involved in the events of 9/11. The people who actually planned and committed the act of murder are all dead.

3. The death penalty provides no deterrent in a case such as his.
I question the supposed efficacy of the death penalty as a deterrent, but even if it could be demonstrated, how could it apply to someone whose intention is to die as a martyr?

As for the deterrent as a general principle, there are several points to be made. While there may be some would-be killers who might decide not to kill for fear of execution instead of life imprisonment (something that is doubtful, since those who commit crimes tend to do so with the idea that they won't be caught), there could just as easily be those who feel a need to be sure to eliminate all potential witnesses to an already deadly crime as a way to avoid prosecution in a case that would end up getting them executed.

Ultimately, the threat of losing personal liberty for the rest of one's life is deterrent enough against committing a deadly crime. About the only argument* I could think of for retaining capital punishment is as a bargaining chip when getting a likely-guilty suspect to confess, though this is certainly open to abuse.

4. The death penalty is cruel and arbitrary and therefore a tool that should not be used.
A person with fewer resources—typically minorities or the poor—is reportedly more likely to be convicted and sentenced to death than those with more resources. God help you if you are on trial for a deadly offense and you can't afford an effective lawyer. Your public defender will try to plea bargain you down, a travesty of justice if you are actually innocent.

5. An ill-executed decision to execute cannot be reversed once the death sentence is meted out. 

Related to #4, this is another glaring reason why capital punishment should be eliminated across the board: juries sometimes convict innocent people. Wrongly convicted people who have been sentenced to life imprison can be let free; wrongly convicted people who have been executed cannot. The uniquely irreversible nature of this type of punishment makes it inappropriate in a system where human error plays no small role.

Modern tools, such as DNA evidence, have led to the reversal of numerous convictions, sometimes for people on death row or those already convicted. In other cases, such as the notorious Central Park jogger case from years ago (though not a capital punishment case), the actual culprit later is found or even confesses.

Some may scoff at this and suggest you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette, but I think the oportunity to exact revenge on a murderer is not worth the price of killing innocent people, which will happen if capital punishment is routinely used. I think one of the most horrific things imaginable would be to be put to death for a crime one didn't commit.

Of course, this doesn't quite apply to Moussaoui's case, since authorities are pretty convinced of the actual conspiracy, which he himself has acknowledged. As well, it didn't apply in the case of Timothy McVeigh, who eventually all but confessed that his conviction was deserved.

But the existence of clear-cut cases of guilt does not negate the fact that not all are cases are clear-cut. A standard must be applied across the board, because the nature of human error in judgement means that we don't always know when it has occurred.

6. Use of the death penalty in democratic countries that generally respect human rights undermines those countries' ability to speak out against a less humane usage of the death penalty in countries that still have human rights issues.
China, a rising economic power that is still grappling with human rights issues, executes quite a few people for non-deadly and even non-violent crimes. This should be appalling to people who respect life at all, but for a country like the United States which allows capital punishment in hundreds of cases, it is hypocritical and arrogant to dictate or suggest when it is okay to kill criminals and when it is not. The only non-hypocritical path is to eliminate the practice altogether. Were democracies like the United States, Korea, and Japan to remove capital punishment from the judicial books, it would be a powerful tool to persuade China to do the same, especially for the non-deadly and non-violent crimes, and perhaps eventually for actual murder.

7. Vengeance is the Lord's.
Admittedly, much of my opposition to capital punishment is rooted in my religious values, values which not everyone shares. But respect for human life, as well as mercy, is a universal value. In the past, this has meant the elimination of cruelty when meting out death sentences—and in some cases it meant meting out the punishment swiftly—but today our recognition of the fallability of a human-based system of judging has caused this universal value to morph into one whereby capital punishment is no longer acceptable in a humane society.

8. Killing Moussaoui means eliminating a potential intelligence asset down the road.
As in the case of Timothy McVeigh, Moussaoui may know more than he has told. Even if he is insane, he may have been privvy to information that could be useful at some future date. Were he to be killed, any potential for obtaining that information is eliminated.

Timothy McVeigh went to the chair knowing more than he let on. As time went on, it is possible his heart may have softened, maybe enough to reveal what he knew, information that might have been useful toward preventing future Oklahoma City-type bombings or in bringing his co-conspirators to justice.

Another case is that of the convicted assasination conspirators who targeted former President George H.W. Bush in Saudi Arabia. As it turned out, their swift execution by Saudi authorities meant the loss of information about activities by Muslim extremists in the region.

9. Killing Moussaoui creates a high-profile martyr.
Like Timothy McVeigh, Moussaoui is a potential symbol for those who would do harm to Americans and other people. Their killing is not seen as a deterrent to such people, but as a rallying cry. Their execution is a symbol of American hubris and unyielding might which is being used as a sledgehammer against them. To paraphrase a common saying, their deaths make a martyr out of an asshole.

Furthermore, their brave countenance in the face of impending death as the executioner's needle is inserted becomes a model for like-minded individuals down the road. Their death by the American government authorities gives one more reason to fight for their cause.

In contrast, the image of an aging killer or would-be killer is a less potent symbol, a pathetic display that almosts evokes pity.

10. Mercy even for the enemy is the moral high road.
Fellow travelers of Zacarias Moussaoui or Timothy McVeigh think that governments like that of America, Spain, Britain, etc., are hell-bent on the destruction of their people. Sparing the life of the killer or would-be killer is the ultimate way of proving that wrong.



  1. Excellent post. i have to disagree in principle with this statemet though:

    Killing someone as punishment for mere conspiracy (i.e., when they have not actually killed anyone themselves) goes beyond proportional punishment.

    I think it depends on the role played and the magnitude of the crime committed.

  2. Rowan wrote:
    Excellent post.

    Thank you for the kind words. Lately I've been hearing what asinine and vacuous stuff I write, so it's always nice to read somebody actually liked something. ;)

    i have to disagree in principle with this statemet though:

    Killing someone as punishment for mere conspiracy (i.e., when they have not actually killed anyone themselves) goes beyond proportional punishment.

    I think it depends on the role played and the magnitude of the crime committed.

    You know, in hindsight, that looks a little vague, and I may try to tweak it a little.

    By mere conspiracy, I am not referring to someone who willingly and knowingly participated in the planning of a killing that actually took place. Rather, I was referring to someone who participated in a killing that ultimately did not take place.

    Of course, some may think I am splitting hairs here: Zacarias Moussaoui may have helped plan the entire set of 9/11 killings, which would mean my description does not apply to him.

    But I'm not so sure that's what happened here, and I think in fact he may have been convicted of conspiring to kill the people that were on whatever plane he was to be on, an act that didn't happen.

    I must admit, I'm a little foggy on the details right now, and off the top of my head I can't remember if he was supposedly going to be part of one of the four flights (the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania, I think), or if he was supposed to set up a fifth flight.

    But part of the problem is that he was in jail in the last weeks of the plot, I think, when it turned into a real plan. I don't know for sure that he would have actually committed the killings, then.

    But as I mentioned prior, a blanket ban on the death penalty would negate any need to consider this, which almost seems like a "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" kind of argument.

    Am I making sense here? Does what I just said make my position clearer (even if you might still disagree), or should I go back and tweak the language of the post?

  3. One thing I forgot to add, which I might later if I choose to tweak the post: despite my opposition to them being executed, I do recognize that a person like Timothy McVeigh, Zacarias Moussaoui, or Karla Faye Tucker deserve to die.

  4. yeh, there wasn't really any misunderstanding.

    in full context i could understand where you were coming from, i just thought it was worth pointing out.

  5. I can understand where you are coming from as well but my main reason why I wanted the guy to get the death penalty was because down the road some wacko liberal judge may let him out because he didn't actually kill anyone and has since been "rehabilitated".

    I'm also waiting for the claims to come out about the supermax guards flushing the Koran down toilet or whatever other lies the ACLU can make up to defame the US government just like the Gitmo lies and inspire more Islamic radicals.

    Plus I'm sure their are news networks just itching to interview him in prison in the future so he can spout more hate at the 9/11 victims' families.

    Plus I would love to see the Tookie Williams defenders come out and make asses of themselves by defending Moussaoui the week before he is about to be executed.

  6. I had not considered it from exactly those angles but agree with you on all ten points. Appreciate the post.


Share your thoughts, but please be kind and respectful. My mom reads this blog.