Talking about Death - Zacarias Moussaoui and the Death Penalty
As I was driving home yesterday, I heard a wonderful piece on NPR featuring the reaction of two women both of whom lost loved ones in the World Trade Center tragedy on 9/11. Both women favor the death penalty when the law allows it. One of them favors the death penalty for Zacarias Moussaoui, the other did not.
As long time readers know, I'm completely and utterly opposed to the death penalty. I would not execute Zacarias Moussaoui for many reasons (he wasn't directly responsible for death being one of them; my wholesale opposition to the death penalty being another). But what really struck me is the difference between the two responses.
In my view, one interviewee takes a rational approach to whether Zacarias Moussaoui should be executed. The other takes a visceral approach.
Neither is more valid than the other, and, in some ways, the outcome ends up being the same. But how each talks about the application of it in the Zacarias Moussaoui case seems very significant to me.
One justification for why I oppose the death penality is based in my doubt about whether we can apply it dispassionately. My hope is not to deny or discredit the valid emotional responses of any friend or family who have lost a loved one, but to point out how that kind of emotion can compel human beings to misapply the law and to see guilt and death-worthiness where is doesn't exist.
Both interviews are conducted by the amazing Melissa Block (MB)*.
The first interviewee is named Mindy Kleinberg (MK). Ms. Kleinberg lost her husband, a securities trader with Cantor Fitzgerald. I should say up front that though I disagree with her view on the death penalty, I so admire her and idealize her expression of her viewpoint. Her words will live with me for a long time.
MB asks about Zacarias Moussaoui and whether he was a central figure in 9/11.
MK: He did not know the date of 9/11. He did not know there were any other planes. He had not met any of the other highjackers. He did not have a root. So, this did not sound like a man who really knew about the 9/11 plot. Do I think that he should be behind bars? Given a chance do I think he would hurt us? Yes, I do.
MB: Ms. Kleinberg, as this trial enters the last phase when the jury will be deciding whether Mr. Moussaoui lives or dies, have you thought forward to that decision and how you might feel when it comes?
MK: You know, I think the ball has already been rolling. At this point, whichever way they decide, is not important to me. I really would have hoped that they would realize that the best place for Moussaoui was in jail. I just feel that the death penalty should be reserved for those who commit the crime. I would have like to see my government prosecuting Ramsey
Ben Alsheed and Khalid Shaihk Mohammed who were 100% connected with the 9/11 plot. They were the financier; they were the mastermind. At this point it's in the jury's hands.
MB: I wonder if there's ever a moment when you stop and think about Zacarias Moussaoui and what might happen to him when you think you know, considering what my family's gone through, maybe he should be put to death, maybe there's some measure of justice.
MK: what my family has gone through and the impact that its had on us will be the same whether he's put to death or not. For me he's never been my proxy. You know, it's almost like a scapegoat. We're going to hold this man up and put him to death so you can all feel better? That doesn't do it for me. If you catch Osama bin Laden, I will feel better. If you fix the FBI, I will feel better. If you fix the CIA, I will feel better. If you get radios for the firefighters in New York that work, I will feel better. Putting Moussaoui to death has zero impact on my life, and he is not my proxy...
MB and MK talk about Zacarias Moussaoui potentially becoming a mayrtr. MK says that we shouldn't worry about his mindset. She concludes that if, by our laws, it's appropriate to put him to death, then that's what we should do.
The second interviewee is Sally Regenhard. She lost her son Christian who just started his career as a NYC firefighter.
SR: When I was looking at him, I thought to myself. He looks like a demonic gargoyle. Just his features, his face. He had such an evil, evil look to him. And the thing that I was really struck by was that if you looked into his eyes, his eyes were dead. They were just dead eyes. I caught his gaze about three times. I wanted him to look at me, and for that reason I wore a red blouse that day. I wanted to...you know, this sounds a little strange, but...I wanted to represent my son...I wore red, you know, for my son's heart. Red also represents, in some sense, the fire department. Even red for the blood of the innocents that was shed. I was very, very deliberate in doing that. On three occasions, when he just gave this empty look around, I locked eyes with him. I wanted to look into the face of evil, and I accomplished that part.
MB: It sounds like you're convinced that Zacarias Moussaoui's actions led in some way, directly, to the death of your son, am I right about that?
SR: I feel that he could have, if he did admit, who he was and what he was doing, I think at least we would have had a chance. Even though I'm very critical of the bungling of the federal government and the FBI, the CIA, the INS, all these agencies that failed, I still feel that if this man had told the truth, maybe we would have had a chance.
MB: When you've thought about what the jury is having to think about: what should happen to Zacarias Moussaoui, should he be put to death, should he be sentenced to life in prison, how do you work through that?
SR: Based on what I heard and plus his very willingness to admit to this, I'm convinced that he does qualify for the death penalty.
MB: Ms. Rerenhard, when you think through this question of life and death and what should happen with Zacarias Moussaoui, do you think about what your son, what Christian would have wanted?
SR: I do, I think about my son every day. I just don't know. In some instance I can say what I think he would have wanted. If we were the people who were butchered in a brutal and needless death, maybe he would have had the righteous indignation that I think many of the family members have. I can't make the call. If I thought that he really would have been against it, I would say it, but I just don't know.
* And both were transcribed by me, without permission and doing the best I could to get the words and phrases right, this morning at about 6:45. For the best effect, listen to the linked NPR audios. They are each about 3 minutes long.