Mukasey’s comments were stupid and more than a little inappropriate. But like Eric, I have a certain sympathy for his mixed feelings here.
While I oppose the death penalty as a policy matter, in a legal culture in which we reserve the right to execute people for relatively routine street crimes, it seems quite absurd for the justice system to get squeamish about executing the operational masterminds of Sept. 11. It gives new meaning to the word caprice . Kill one person and you get a lethal injection; kill 3,000 and you get a term of years? It makes no sense.
And yet, nobody who has studied al-Qaida in even the most cursory fashion will sleep easy at night imagining punishments that martyr its leadership. Al-Qaida is a cult of martyrdom. Bin Laden’s rhetoric is overt on this point. He talks about how al-Qaida’s youth love death as much as Americans love life. He talks about suicide attacks in frankly aesthetic terms. The hanging of Egyptian intellectual Sayyid Qutb, who joyfully went to his death at Nasser’s hands, made a martyr out of modern jihadism’s intellectual godfather—and thus vastly magnified his myth. The last thing America needs to do is to fuel this martydom culture with more executions.
I have no idea how you square this circle—and I don’t approve of the attorney general’s ruminating about it publicly. I’m kind of glad, however, that he’s thinking about it.