The case for letting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed live

By Nicholas Wapshott
April 13, 2012

What should be done with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? If the Defense Department is to be believed, the chief planner of the 9/11 attacks on America is guilty of mass murder and crimes against humanity. Even if the evidence elicited by waterboarding him 183 times is void, his declaration in 2002 that “I was responsible for the 9/11 Operation from A to Z” should ensure conviction.

In addition to the 9/11 attacks that killed 2,973, he is credited with commissioning shoe-bomber Richard Reid to down a transatlantic jetliner laden with 300 passengers; planning the 1993 attempt to fell the Twin Towers, the Bali nightclub bombing that killed 200 and a bomb attack in Istanbul in 2003 that killed 60; as well as plots to assassinate Pope John Paul II and Bill Clinton and to demolish the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. For those who would argue Mohammed is a war combatant rather than a dangerous psychotic, it should also be noted that he personally sawed off the head of the American reporter Daniel Pearl.

Mohammed and his co-conspirators face the death penalty, but it is by no means certain the prosecution will ask for it. There are a number of practical reasons Mohammed should instead live out his days buried in the vaults of a maximum security prison. He desperately wants to end his days of idle impotence and emerge as an inspirational figure in the Islamist war against the West. “This is what I wish, to be a martyr for a long time. I will, God willing, have this, by you,” he explained in 2008. He would be sooner forgotten alive than dead; just think of Charles Manson.

Moreover, Mohammed remains a key source for understanding al Qaeda’s modus operandi and its next moves. He has been spilling the names and whereabouts of sleeper cells, and it was his information that led to the discovery and death by Navy SEAL of Osama bin Laden. Better alive and singing than taking his secrets to the grave.

Demanding the death penalty would also entail a far longer trial, giving Mohammed more opportunities to have his remarks in court relayed to his followers. A capital sentence would open up a lengthy avenue of appeals, keeping him and his murderous creed in the headlines. Asking for life imprisonment would cut that short.

But by far the most important argument against the judicial killing of Mohammed lies in the nature of what the Princeton sage Bernard Lewis calls the “clash of civilizations” between Islamist fundamentalism and the Judeo-Christian West in which Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a mere speck.

The core of our beliefs is not represented by the clamor for eye-for-an-eye retribution that emerges when our peaceful way of life is shattered by terrorism. It is to be found in the key instrument of the Jewish faith, the Ten Commandments, and in the words of Jesus Christ. The Sixth Commandment could not be more clear: “Thou shalt not kill.” And Christ’s example is one of meeting violence with forgiveness and turning the other cheek.

As Lewis wisely warns: “It is crucially important that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but also equally irrational reaction against that rival.” And it is particularly important not to lose sight of our defining values when administering justice. That is why the issue of whether waterboarding is torture is so pertinent. To commit an act of barbarism in defense of our civilization is to contradict the heart of our beliefs and provide ammunition to our enemies.

In the last five years, the movement to protect life in the womb has been matched by a quieter drive to abandon the death penalty, leading to the ending of capital punishment in New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Nebraska, New York and Kansas, bringing the number of abolition states to 14, plus the District of Columbia. Connecticut is on the brink of abolition, and California will vote in November whether to follow suit.

To spare the life of  Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is not to free Barabbas but to show mercy in the face of profound provocation. It is not only the right thing to do, it is the civilized thing to do, and, if our justice system is to properly defend our civilization, it is also the practical thing to do.

PHOTO: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is shown in this file photograph during his arrest on March 1, 2003.  REUTERS/Courtesy U.S. News & World Report/Files

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