Jewish World Review May 10, 2006 / 12 Iyar, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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Notes on a verdict | "I want you, Mr. Moussaoui, to know how you wrecked my life."

Those are the words of Rosemary Dillard, who was given an opportunity to address the court at what one hopes will finally prove the end of that trial, spectacle, farce and nigh-endless ordeal.

Mrs. Dillard, the widow of a passenger who was killed when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon that fateful day, went on to tell Zacarias Moussaoui:

"You took the most important person in my life from me. . . . I hope that you sit in that jail without seeing the sky, without seeing the sun, without any contact with the world, and that your name never comes up in any newspaper again during the rest of my life."


If only it could be so, dear lady. But it can't be. Not now. Because this terrorist was tried in a civil court with all the protections of civil law, as if he were a member of civil society, rather than a war criminal who made no bones about his desire to destroy us — man, woman and child. To destroy everyone in the Twin Towers and everyone aboard those airliners. Every American he could reach.

Now that the trial is over, supposedly, at least the mug shot of the defendant, routinely reprinted with each day's report on the proceedings in court, may no longer be everywhere every day — in the papers, on television, over the Internet. And what a picture it is. The defendant's expression is a combination of rage, ignorance, the pride that goeth before the fall, and murderous delusion. His is a face that could sink a thousand ships — and would if only it could.

A consolation: Zacarias Moussaoui may have avoided the death penalty, but at least the country avoided the years and years of appeals that go with it. How long does the average appeal of a death sentence go on before it is finally carried out? Five, ten, a dozen years, indefinitely?

Imagine the never-ending news stories about those never-ending appeals if Mr. Moussaoui had received the death penalty. Think Timothy McVeigh and the appeals in his case before he was put out of the nation's misery and memory.

Even if the defendant in this case didn't receive the death penalty, the appeals are already in the works. Now he wants a new trial and a chance to start all over. He must miss the publicity.

The jury took seven whole days to reach its verdict. The wheels of justice ground slow in this case, but not necessarily fine. Let it be said for the jurors that they deliberated. And let it be said for their decision that it demonstrates that American law does not trade in revenge.

But it does deal in delay, confusion, moral obtuseness and all the other ills to which a tangled legal system is heir.

People ask, was justice done? The courts ask only: Did the system work?

The answer: It depends. If you think that more than four years of justice delayed — and a trial that resembled a four-ring circus from time to intermittent time — represents the way the system should work, then it did, Lord help us.

It took a couple of years just to decide whether the defense could call a roster of Zacarias Moussaoui's partners in al-Qaida as witnesses, bringing them all together for a kind of grand reunion in the courtroom — even if they had to be flown in from Guantanamo or wherever they're now being held and grilled. In the end, Mr. Moussaoui's request was denied, but not until after it was taken far too seriously for far too long.

This whole, semi-riotous process called a trial made the best case possible for military tribunals. It may have demonstrated America's dedication to the law. But justice is something else.

Let it be said that, however unsatisfying any decision in this case might have been, the jury did its duty. At least it had no use for all that psychobabble about the defendant's being insane. Crazy, he is, definitely. But he was crazy in the way all fanatics are crazy, crazy in the way that suicide bombers in the Middle East are crazy, but not insane. Zacarias Moussaoui knew what he was doing, and by all the evidence, would love to do it again, the next time successfully.

In his immediate, predictable, pedestrian reaction to the jury's verdict, the president of the United States said it showed mercy. Really? To be locked up in a small cell forever and, let's hope, forgotten? To become an unperson? This is mercy? This is life? There are things worse than death. The fate decreed for Zacarias Moussaoui sounds like one of them.

Forgive me for mentioning the name of Timothy McVeigh again, but let it be noted that the verdict in his case gave us something the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui did not: finality.

So long as Zacarias Moussaoui lives, we will be treated to some mention of him, maybe on every anniversary of his conviction. He will be in the news the same way Sirhan Sirhan is every time he appears before the parole board.

Great thing, finality. But in the case of Justice versus Moussaoui, it will doubtless be a long, long time before We the People are granted it.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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