It's About Us, Not Him

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and

Zacarias Moussaoui's jurors should resist the sweet temptation to judge him based upon the beastly words he used in court last Thursday during the waning days of his federal sentencing trial in Alexandria, Va. Indeed, to the extent humanly possible, the brave men and woman of the jury should ignore what the al Qaeda conspirator says altogether — dismiss it like the rantings of a six-year-old child — and base their life-or-death decision about him solely upon which message they wish to send to their fellow citizens and the rest of the world.

It is becoming increasingly clear with each blustery outburst from Moussaoui that his fate ultimately is about us, as a people, and not about him, a low-grade failure in the dark world of terror. It is about how experienced we have become in perceiving the terror threat around us; how capable we now are of separating true terrorists from wannabe terror punks like Moussaoui. It's about whether we are smart enough to see through his shtick; through what his own lawyers call "manipulation;" through the bluffs and the threats and the grade-school insults. He says inhuman things. How human will be our reaction to them?

Several jurors in court Thursday looked away from Moussaoui as he mocked 9/11 and its victims. I wish more had done so. In fact, I wish the jurors in a moment of drama had simply turned their back on the guy or even walked out of the courtroom. For Moussaoui now is worthy of no more attention or respect from the panel than that. He is saying what he is saying, all the ugly words and false bravado, because he wants the world to think he is brave, a true-believer in the cause of al Qaeda, a warrior who will fight until the fight is done. He wants to do with words what he could not do in deed.

But his jurors know, and we know, that when Moussaoui was free to fight he did not. He could not. The guy who ridiculed the victims of 9/11 by telling jurors Thursday "no pain, no gain" was, is and forever will be all show and no go. He wasn't going to the 20th hijacker; he wasn't going to fly into the White House; he wasn't even going to get anywhere near a plane. Every organization has its share of losers, of men and women who just don't cut it for one reason for another. For al Qaeda, Moussaoui was that guy. Only now, with everyone who could contradict him either dead, on the run, or on government-inspired ice, suddenly he's Genghis Khan. Please.

Some of his jurors were laughing at him in court, the Associated Press reported, and that's because they know now, as if they did not before, that he is merely a punk — either loony or a jerk or some combination of both. Think of him as the insecure kid who, craving for attention, hectors both his friends and his enemies. Think of him as the student who tries out for the team but comes up woefully short and thus becomes an obnoxious rah-rah cheerleader. Think of him as the guy who tries to get into the exclusive club by telling the bouncer that he knows the celebrities inside.

Remember that all of Moussaoui's al Qaeda leaders except one — Osama bin Laden himself — couldn't stand the guy and couldn't wait to be rid of him. The guy is a rube, elevated to the status he currently occupies only because of monumentally poor judgment by the White House and Justice Department, which picked him, of all people, to endure a 9/11 show trial. The feds should forever be ashamed of themselves for making that choice all those years ago, and for sticking to it so stubbornly since. But that doesn't mean that jurors have to endorse it. Even Moussaoui couldn't stick to his own script. He told jurors that he came to believe that it ultimately "was useless to differentiate" himself from 9/11 as if it were a choice.

Moussaoui tells the jury that he has "no regret, no remorse" about 9/11, as though he played a central role in its planning and execution. Notwithstanding Moussaoui's false confession a few weeks ago, in which he planted himself at the center of the hijacking plot, the truth is that the guy didn't know who the other hijackers were, when they would strike, which planes they would use, or any other material operational details of the plot. He said what he wanted to say back then because he was smart enough to sense that the government's case against him was falling apart. Now, he is saying what he is saying because he figures he'll meet the real hijackers in Paradise and at the same time become a martyr in the madrasahs of Pakistan and Iraq.

He'd be happy to see another 9/11? Sure, he told the defense attorney he had just scorned, "every day until we get you." This from a guy whose of idea of "getting" us was to draw immediate attention to himself by asking his flight instructor in Minnesota in August 2001 whether the doors of a jet plane could be opened automatically once in flight. This from a guy who tried to train to fly 747s without ever flying a Cessna. This from a guy who kept asking his terror bosses for more money even as the real hijackers were sending their unspent funds back to the Middle East in the hours before 9/11. If Moussaoui were in the Mob he long ago would have been whacked for being soft.

He'd be happy to hear sobbing again like what he heard in court from prosecution witnesses during the second phase of this proceeding? "Make my day," he told an attorney. "I am glad there was pain and I wish there will be more pain." This from a guy who reportedly told his terror bosses that he didn't want a hijacking gig on the East Coast and who made a mess of his terror training opportunities in Asia long before 9/11. Moussaoui isn't bin Laden Light. He's not even Richard Reid, the failed shoebomber. No, Moussaoui is a stooge; the guy who tripped over his own shadow, fell into a hole, and is about to come out a poster child for, as he so self-inflatingly puts it, one man's crusade against a Superpower.

Jurors should forget about Moussaoui's taunts. They should forget about his hatred. They should forget about his boasts. They should forget about the lack of empathy or compassion he showed to the innocents of 9/11. They should instead decide what punishment would be worst for him and best for America; what punishment would best differentiate our society, our culture, and our legal system from the one Moussaoui thinks it is — or wishes it would be. They should think not of the immediate outcome of their decision but upon its long-term influence on the war on terror. They should not sink to his level or allow his level to become the baseline for this and future terror trials.

If Moussaoui is going to act like a child, a petulant, spoiled, silly, bragging brat of a child, then his jurors should take a stand and act like adults. They owe it to us, to him, and in the end to themselves.

By Andrew Cohen