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Thank Heaven for small mercies, part 2

I appreciate them where I can find them. Here’s one from Washington, DC, announced this evening:

ALEXANDRIA, Va., May 3 — A federal jury rejected the death penalty for Zacarias Moussaoui on Wednesday, deciding instead that he should be sentenced to life in prison for his role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The verdict seemed to surprise most people in the courtroom here, notably Justice Department prosecutors. They had relentlessly urged the jurors that Mr. Moussaoui, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in April 2005, should be executed for his role in the deaths and destruction of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Jurors left the courthouse without speaking about their reasoning. But court officials read aloud details of what factors the jurors had voted to consider as they decided Mr. Moussaoui’s fate, including his troubled upbringing in a dysfunctional immigrant Moroccan family in France.

The decision means that the sole individual charged in a United States courtroom in connection with the worst attack on American soil will spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement in a federal prison in Colorado with no possibility of release.

… Under the federal death penalty law, Judge Brinkema is obliged to impose the sentence chosen by the jury, and she said she would formally sentence Mr. Moussaoui on Thursday morning.

— Neil A. Lewis, New York Times (2006-05-03): Moussaoui Given Life Term by Jury Over Link to 9/11

As I said in an earlier case, mutatis mutandis,

It is also good to see that justice for Rudolph will come untainted by wrath. The last thing we need is a martyr for the terrorist wing of the anti-abortion movement, and the last thing I need is to be stuck with defending the rights of yet another ghastly shell of a human being who is obviously guilty as hell to be free of the hangman’s noose. Thank Heaven for small mercies.

Of course, the usual pack of ruddy-faced chest-beaters will be screaming for blood. In fact, they’ve already started. There’s not much to say to those who revel in fantasized torture and slaughter. There is a lot more to say to those who have an argument rather than just a snarl, but most of it I’ve already said in GT 2004-12-15: God damn it and GT 2005-12-13: Murder in the first. The New York Times, though, does leave us with this attempt at a parting shot:

Rosemary Cain, who lost her son George, a New York firefighter, said she heard the verdict on her car radio. I had a kind of sinking feeling in my stomach, Ms. Cain said. I was absolutely hoping they would put him to death.

He is just an empty, empty person, she said. There are just some people who cannot be rehabilitated.

— Neil A. Lewis, New York Times (2006-05-03): Moussaoui Given Life Term by Jury Over Link to 9/11

This may very well be true–both in principle and in application. But saving the souls of the wicked is not a legitimate aim for a system of criminal justice in the first place. Neither is avenging the dead, or indulging victims’ loved ones in a sadistic quest for closure through inflicting pain and death. If it has a legitimate purpose, it is to restrain criminals from harming anyone else. The jurors did that today, with a sentence as stern as anyone has a right to demand, and I say good on them for it.

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5 replies to Thank Heaven for small mercies, part 2 Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Lanoire

    But saving the souls of the wicked is not a legitimate aim for a system of criminal justice in the first place.

    So you don’t believe any efforts should be made to help criminals change?

  2. T. J. Madison

    If it has a legitimate purpose, it is to restrain criminals from harming anyone else.

    But now Moussaoui gets to harm the taxpayer for another 40K a year for a few decades. A bullet to the head would eliminate this particular problem.

    Sure, giving the State the power to shoot (more) people is dangerous, but allowing it to extort >$1M more dollars to keep this (and other) waste of carbon alive doesn’t seem so great either.

  3. Rad Geek

    Lanoire:

    So you don’t believe any efforts should be made to help criminals change?

    Whether or not any efforts should be made depends on what you have in mind under the heading of efforts. Prisoners should not be coerced into programs designed to rehabilitate or reform them, such as mandatory counseling, psychiatric medication, classes, forced labor programs, or any of the other means that have historically been used. I have no problem with things like this being available to prisoners; I do have a problem with forcing them to participate, as has historically been the case, as a part of their imprisonment.

    T. J. Madison:

    But now Moussaoui gets to harm the taxpayer for another 40K a year for a few decades. A bullet to the head would eliminate this particular problem.

    Yes, and so would shooting up a queue at the welfare office, or blowing up a government school, or dropping all the drug prisoners in federal prisons into the Pacific Ocean, or killing off sugar plantation owners (some of whom receive more than $1,000,000 annually in tax-funded subsidies). So what? The existence of the coercive State is not, ultimately, their fault, and killing them off for taking advantage of it is not really an appropriate response.

    What you have given an argument for is ending tax funding of all prisons, not for killing off prisoners. Besides the fact that premeditated murder is not a proportional use of force for the theft of a little more than one one-hundredth of a cent per capita per year, there’s also simply the problem that in the actually existing prison system, killing prisoners costs more than keeping them in prison for life, not less, so a death sentence would mean more net harm to taxpayers, not less. Remember that execution is not something done instead of keeping prisoners imprisoned for years, but rather something done in addition to it.

    You could point out that under some imaginary reformed death sentence protocols you’ve thought up, death sentences could cost much less than long-term imprisonment, so the costs of actually practiced death sentences aren’t relevant. But setting aside the fact that there are very good reasons why death sentences are so costly and have such an elaborate appeals process, there’s also simply a question of intellectual fairness here. If you get to use an imaginary reform instead of the actually existing practice for the death penalty half of the comparison, then I’m certainly entitled to use an imaginary reform instead of the actually existing practice for the life imprisonment half of the comparison.

    You may have some other reason for thinking that killing off really bad prisoners is more appropriate than imprisoning them — e.g. because you think they deserve to die, or something of the sort. Certainly that’s the impression that descriptions like waste of carbon give. But if that’s your argument, then you had best make that argument, rather than engaging in special pleading about the costs to taxpayers.

  4. T. J. Madison

    Yes, and so would shooting up a queue at the welfare office, or blowing up a government school, or dropping all the drug prisoners in federal prisons into the Pacific Ocean, or killing off sugar plantation owners (some of whom receive more than $1,000,000 annually in tax-funded subsidies). So what?

    Shooting up the thieving parasites at the welfare queues as well as those sugar plantation owners is technically difficult, because the State protects them. Otherwise, cleansing the world of their filth might be quite entertaining. The State provides coercion services to clients, and those clients are just as morally culpable for the theft they profit from as the blunt instrument to whom they have delegated the dirty task of wealth extraction. So yes, the existence of the state IS ultimately their fault, and they should burn for it.

    (Armed liberation of drug prisoners and possibly public schoolchildren would also be noble, if equally difficult.)

    What you have given an argument for is ending tax funding of all prisons, not for killing off prisoners.

    Indeed that would be the ideal solution. Failing that, straightforward vigilantism would work too. Maybe Moussaomi will have a “heart attack” and save us a bunch of money.

    Besides the fact that premeditated murder is not a proportional use of force for the theft of a little more than one one-hundredth of a cent per capita per year, . . .

    Um, that’s one-hundreth of a cent multiplied by the total prison population. Really the math works out to be somewhere around $200 per person.

    The diffusion of the cost over the entire population makes the theft worse because it makes it almost impossible to marshal the effort needed to stop it. But in the end the harm done by all the separate little thefts adds up.

  5. Lanoire

    Rad Geek, fair enough. I was thinking more about having that stuff available, and I agree that coercion into such programs is somewhat reminiscent of “re-education.”

    I suspect that the jurors in this case felt manipulated by the onslaught of 9/11 footage they were subjected to. That would make me feel a bit contrary towards the prosecution as well.

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