Khalid Sheik Muhammad would probably roll over in his cell to hear this, but his courtroom antics reminded me of a quote from the Talmud and an old Jewish joke.
Muhammad, the mastermind — if destruction requires mastery or mind — of the September 11 attacks on the United States, told the judge at his trial by tribunal last week that he seeks execution as an outcome. This would earn him the status of martyr, he claims. When people make such statements in the dock, it gives pause to the earnest citizen. Do we really want to grant an evil man his wish?
The famous quote from the Talmud is that a man who has a bad wife earns himself a free pass to avoid Hell after he dies. Presumably, the message is that he is experiencing his Hell right here on Earth. As a takeoff on this, the old gag tells of the man who decided to marry the meanest girl in town so he could be assured of not going to Hell. After the wedding, she begins to be extremely sweet and treat him like a king.
“I didn’t realize you were such a nice person,” the groom finally says.
“I’m not,” answers the bride. “That’s why I won’t let you get out of Hell on my account.”
Our first instinct when we hear that this killer pines for martyrdom is to deny him his dream. Why should we be pawns in putting an exclamation point on his gory career of pseudo-religious bloodthirstiness? Let him better rot in jail for life, watching the years go by in an endless procession of hollowness. He is a nothing and a nobody at best, and he has already garnered too much attention.
A second argument against the death penalty is that it creates a martyr and inspires future fighters against America. This thinking used to predominate among policymakers forty, fifty years ago, and great efforts were expended to assure safe capture of our worst enemies. In recent times, however, these concerns have become less persuasive for a number of reasons.
Number one, we never really manage to hold people in thorough isolation for decade after decade. Look for example at the Nazi regime or the Japanese WWII officials. Most of those sentenced to life in prison were back home within about a decade. Somehow our will to keep people locked up tends to weaken as the memory of their horrific acts fade. And fade they do. Already there are Americans who have reduced their outrage against Sept. 11 to a resigned shrug.
Two, our prisons can no longer be hermetically sealed against the flow of information. There is always some open activity time, some phone time, some computer time, some lawyer time, some visiting relative time, that can be parlayed into a conduit for relaying messages. The content of such messages do damage, even if they are no more substantive than a declaration of unbowed defiance.
Three, as long as a major terrorist figure is alive, the possibility exists that hostages will be taken in an effort to negotiate a trade. Even if our domestic security is foolproof – and how could it possibly be? – there remain many vulnerable American officials and ordinary citizens abroad. Some equivalent of the taking of the American embassy in Iran in 1979 remains a clear and present danger. Better to carry out justice swiftly and finally, not leaving tempting plums for faraway terrorist planners to covet.
Four, the fact remains that even those who claim to desire martyrdom really prefer to live. Remember, Muhammad himself revealed key plots in time for them to be sabotaged. He did so out of the impulse of human fear, through interrogation modalities designed to stimulate that sense.
Five, and finally, who cares what he or his friends think or profess? Our system recognizes that there are levels of evil behavior that call upon a moral society to deprive its practitioner of life. He deserves to die as punishment, he deserves to die as a protection for everyone else, he deserves to die as a message to the world to teach right from wrong. He can choose to characterize it any way he likes. That is just the terrorist version of spin. He can be a martyr on our account if he likes, and then go straight to Hell anyway.