This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The decision of a federal jury in Alexandria, Va., to spare the life of the only man to be charged for the September 11 terrorist attacks is being met, especially here in New York, with a combination of disappointment and outrage. Zacarias Moussaoui’s crime of misprision – failure to report the crime in which he was to have participated – cost 3,000 individuals their lives. Many believed, and still believe, that it ought to have cost him his.
In one sense, this outcome is a warning of the risks inherent in treating terrorism – that, is, war – as a law enforcement matter. Those who have railed against the administration’s policy of treating most terrorists as unlawful combatants instead of as common criminals now confront the fact that the regular criminal justice system may not always deal with terrorists in a way that most Americans would recognize as just or effective. This case is a textbook example of the challenges a war can present to the criminal justice system.
So far the civilian courts are working honorably to equip themselves to face the threat of terrorism, yet it will take years for the courts to rise to the challenge. This jury’s earlier determination that misprision would make Moussaoui at least eligible for a death penalty was a start, even if jurors’ unwillingness to impose that penalty appears to so many to be a setback. Here at the Sun, we generally credit juries. But much work remains, and America can’t afford to take a pause in the war on terror while our courts figure out how to enter the battle.
Meantime the court’s performance has thrown into sharp relief the qualities that distinguish Americans from the enemy we face. Moussaoui has benefited from a respect for the value of life that he himself not only failed to show but grotesquely mocked. While the American legal system views life, even that of a confessed criminal, as so valuable that it can only be taken after a painstaking legal process, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups show no such compunction.
Which is not a point we expect Moussaoui, or any other radical Islamist, to appreciate, although Moussaoui will have plenty of time to contemplate. If he lives a normal lifespan in prison, the jihad for which he has paid with his freedom will have collapsed – he will live to see the blossoming of peace, democracy, and prosperity in those parts of the world where his comrades today try to sow chaos and terror. If that proves to be as abhorrent to him as to the rest of al Qaeda, well, let us just say, our eyes will be dry.