Hand it to Zacarias Moussaoui, who managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with his fantastical eleventh-hour trial testimony last week about a never-before-mentioned fifth 9/11 airplane; the one that he would apparently have co-piloted with Richard Reid and flown into the White House. In a trial featuring some of the most spectacular episodes of government overreaching and misconduct we will ever see, Moussaoui managed to persuade the jurors that he was a key figure in the 9/11 attacks—even though he was in jail at the time and had always claimed before that Sept. 11 was “not my conspiracy.”
When it looked like little Moussaoui was too small to play the outsized role the prosecutors had scripted for him, he simply grew himself to fit into it. Moussaoui’s lies don’t appear to have actually advanced the conspiracy of 9/11, but they have certainly forwarded the conspiracy to put him to death as a perpetrator of 9/11.
Faced with the choice of believing the combined wisdom of Waleed bin Attash, Sayf al-Adl, and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, or that of the defendant, jurors finally opted to believe Moussaoui and today found him eligible for the death penalty. And why shouldn’t they believe him? One terrorist in the hand is better than three in undisclosed overseas locations.
Put aside the uncomfortable fact that Moussaoui was always willing—even eager—to die as a martyr. Put aside also the fact that Moussaoui told the prosecution that he wanted to be executed. And that he was willing to testify against himself if it would mean avoiding a life sentence—because it was “different to die in a battle … than in a jail on a toilet,” as he put it.
Why shouldn’t his jurors make his dreams come true?
This was what negotiators describe as a Pareto-optimal result: a win-win, in which Moussaoui, the government, and Americans craving vindication all got what they wanted. In the end, the verdict’s only casualties are a few impossible-to-explain facts. Facts that should have added up to just this: We don’t execute people for fanciful happenings that may have followed from imaginary conversations.
Nobody will dispute that Moussaoui would have happily done anything at all to help the 9/11 plot succeed. But he did nothing to help it succeed because, as everyone but Moussaoui now agrees, he was flaky, wifty, and weird. It’s not a capital crime to be flaky, wifty, or weird. Nor is it a capital crime to wish you were a hero instead of a dud.
Yet because of Moussaoui’s false testimony, the government’s nutty conspiracy theory, and the nation’s need for closure, Moussaoui’s name will be in the history books and the law books for all time; inextricably linked with 9/11, just as it has always been in his dreams. And perhaps we will all sleep better for believing that if Moussaoui had come forward and told what little he knew, we could have stopped those terrible attacks, just as it happens in our own dreams.
How lucky for Moussaoui that his fantasies and ours are such a perfect match.