TCS Daily

Moussaoui's Fate

By Robert McHenry - May 5, 2006 12:00 AM

Zacarias Moussaoui will not be executed. Instead he will spend the rest of his blighted and blighting life in a few square feet of Florence, Colorado. Mighty pretty country around there, I hear, but he won't be seeing any of it. Or anybody.

I should confess at the outset that I am in general opposed to the death penalty. I don't believe that it accomplishes anything -- not rehabilitation, obviously (who was it who said from the scaffold "This will be a great lesson to me"? W.C. Fields?); not deterrence (most capital crimes being crimes of passion, as we used to say, or anyhow the work of people with poor impulse control); not assertion of the law's majesty, or the state's. More crucially, the cost of error is too high, as is the burden of guilt then carried by those directly responsible for carrying out a wrongful execution and, for that matter, by the rest of us, in whose name it is carried out.

As a practical matter, the effort to minimize if not eliminate mistakes has led to such a multiplication of appeals that the passage of time between conviction and execution vitiates the moral connection between crime and retribution to the vanishing point. Executions, when they occur, are routinely for crimes committed ten, twenty, thirty years ago. They could not be more cold-blooded, and increasingly they seem arbitrary. And still there are mistakes.

So on these abstract grounds I was not rooting for death for Moussaoui. But I'm only human (as we say to preface some admission of which we are not entirely proud), and so I must confess also that the prospect of his living in a solitary cell for 23 hours out of each 24 for the rest of his life fills me with deep satisfaction. He is a zealot of the worst sort, the sort who would commit the most beastly act in furtherance of his private vision of truth. Or at least he imagines that he would; it is not entirely certain that he is not more a boastful coward than a warrior for jihad. In either case, his presence among the rest of us is a very large net subtraction from the sum of human achievement and happiness. We will see whether he enjoys his own uninterrupted company any better.

Robert Heinlein imagined a deliciously suitable way of dealing with society's worst criminals in his story "Coventry." They were simply banished to a country of their own, to live as best they might manage among others of their own kind. Society then simply put them out of mind, which seems to me a far nobler exercise of the rule of morality. It says "You have proved that you cannot live peaceably among us. We do not presume to decide your right to live, simply your right to prey upon us. Begone!" It works pretty well for the Amish and the Mennonites. Moreover, it is in itself an almost unbearable fate for one who aspires to cut a blazing figure in the world as a martyr to some insane cause or another.

Judge Leonie Brinkema had it just right when she told the blustering Moussaoui that he would "die with a whimper." I suspect he'll be whimpering a lot sooner than later. If there's a line on whether he will himself attempt to hasten that day, I just may take some of that action.

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004).


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