Full disclosure. I don’t believe in the death penalty either as a deterrent, or as it is meted out, a fail safe dispatch of justice. Even if I did, however, the Moussaoui case always puzzled me. Here is a man who was clearly in the orbit of some very bad people and ideas, who along with them harbors a disdain for most of us, who may have known about the potential use of planes as weapons (as, let’s remember, did the FBI and CIA), but who in fact committed no illegal act. He was in US custody on 9/11. According to press reports there is some reason to believe that he puffed up his own importance (including how much he really did know about the 9/11 venture), and in doing so found a most willing audience in a Justice Department determined to prove its own take on things. He was a near perfect and compliant poster boy for retribution, even if his own culpability remains in question. This is all the more disturbing since we’re told Justice is holding three much more credible culprits whom they may not be able to bring forward without being incriminated themselves for “aggressive interrogation” not to mention having thereby polluted the probative value of any evidence they might have received in the effort.
I find the jury’s verdict most encouraging, but perhaps not for the reason you might think. For sure, as expressed in Times and elsewhere, it is a vindication of our Justice system. In that, it contrasts from the mock juris prudence often encountered elsewhere in the world, including in many Moslem dictatorships. But that’s really not what gives me hope. Over the years I’ve witnessed numerous periods of excess in which, often playing off synthetically created public hysteria, people in power stretched the envelope of authority so far that it threatened our cherished way of life and mores. I was in high school when Joseph McCarthy abused the power of his office literally ruining the lives of countless citizens, among them a host of intellectuals and artists. I later watched Lyndon Johnson tear the country apart in the name of protecting the world from Communism during his misadventure in Viet Nam, and then Richard Nixon who was, contrary to his own disclaimer, indeed a crook who almost robbed us of democracy. Like others I sometimes feel those presently in power are intent on surpassing all of these, thinking that if they can only couch it is the right words and slogans, we lemmings will follow, no questions asked. As a result these may well be the worst of times, at least the worst I have seen.
Clearly the present has yet to play out, and more anguish may well come before it ends. Nonetheless, if history is any lesson at all the American people, despite their limitations and seeming naiveté, always reach a point of awakening, a tipping point when they are aroused out of their sleepy lethargy, a moment when they say “enough”. It is frustrating to watch the painfully slow process –the time when the vox populi move from culpable co-conspirators in their silence to being mad enough not to take it any more. But somehow they do get aroused. Bush’s daily declining poll numbers suggest it is finally happening, but in my mind the decision in Alexandria Virginia may well be the metaphoric turning point. The tide is not merely turning, it has turned.
What has been so exasperating in these dark years has not been so much the misguided policies of this inept and narrowly ideological administration in and of themselves, but their total disregard for everything that makes the United States great. Our history has definitely not been without fault and we’ve lost our way at times in the name of self interest from the moment we became powerful enough to push others around. That said, until now we’ve consistently been seen as a beacon of light, a bastion of freedom even if over generously so. What has saved the nation from the worst that is within us (and particularly in those who govern us) are the people. When the people are in control, as they are in the jury room, very good things can happen. In saying that I don’t want to gloss over the ugliness of the mob that, among others, subverted the rights of Black America, still disdains people who hang on to their immigrant culture and language or that terrorizes gays whom they characterize as deviants. But when the people are blocked from participation, watch out. Things done in secret places, away from the light of day, can become ugly, if not outright evil. Keeping the people out of the process produced Abu Ghraib, letting the people in produced the verdict of Alexandria. It is only the beginning. The genie is out of the bottle now and much as they may try, Bush and company won’t be able to put it back in.
What we know, what we think and what we say may be very offensive and abhorrent. It’s only what we do, especially when it invades the space of our neighbor, that counts. The rebelling jurors in Virginia understood that, and in time so too will we all including those still grieving families. They too may come to see this verdict as a path to ending the most insidious self inflicted excesses of our current nightmare.