On May 13th Zacarias Moussaoui was sent to the “Alcatraz of the Rockies” prison, where the most dangerous federal criminals are kept. He narrowly escaped the death sentence for plotting to kill Americans in the September 11th terrorist attacks. In this lesson, we will look at the details of his court case and the controversies among the American people surrounding his trial, in the light of the principles of our Catholic faith.
The Reason for Suspicion
When the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) took Moussaoui into custody on April 16, 2001, they suspected that a terrorist group was planning an attack using airplanes. The flight school in Eagan, Minnesota, tipped them off that one of their students was acting strangely in his attempt to get more information about the 747-400 model plane. Later, it was suggested that Moussaoui would have been a possible “20th hijacker” in the September 11th attacks. His path over the past years had been similar to the other hijackers, but there was difficulty proving that he actually knew about the 9/11 plot.
Less than responsible?
Some people tried to say that Moussaoui could not be blamed for the crimes he was accused of, because he had such a difficult life, especially in his childhood. His mother was married in Morocco at age 14, and endured violent abuse from her husband for many years. They moved to France, where Zacarias and three other children were born. After a time, the mother left the father and raised the children with the tiny income she received as a cleaning woman.
Due to the rascism against immigrants, the family suffered violence and theft, and were forced to move to different cities often. Zacarias loved sports, but could not be involved in any teams as he moved around so much. He experienced many disappointments in life, and had no religious education to support him.
This difficult background may seem to explain Moussaoui’s violent attitude, yet every person experiences sufferings in life, some very difficult, and still has a choice how he will react to this. Each human being has a responsibility for the choices that he makes. This is part of our dignity as men and women made in God’s image.
Introduction to Extremist Groups
Moussaoui received a master’s degree in International Business from South Bank University in London. It was here that he became more active in the Islamic faith, attending the Brixton Mosque. However, he became involved with extremists who favored a radical indoctrination, and he was expelled from the mosque when he showed up wearing combat fatigues and a backpack to pressure the cleric for information about joining the jihad. The word “Islam” means “submission”, and so the goal of the Muslim (a follower of Islam) is to submit one’s life to Allah, the God of Muslims, upon which he will give them a reward of salvation. Muslims believe that the jihad, or struggle, for total submission (islam) is necessary for total peace.
Violence and the Koran
Part of this struggle is to bring the whole world into conformity with Allah’s will, to recognize that Allah is God. Muslim extremists say that this must be done through Holy War, a jihad that involves bombing and acts of terrorism against anyone who is seen as a threat against Islam. They say the Koran, the holy book of Muslims, justifies their actions.
Most Christians find the Koran’s explanation of violence to be confusing and ambiguous. Unlike the New Testament, it does allow violence in defending or spreading of its faith. By contrast, Christ never allowed violence in defense of the faith, and taught us to love our enemies.
Yet at the same time the Islamic prophet Muhammad emphasizes that the most important jihad is the internal struggle each person must face in order to combat temptation and be faithful to Allah’s law.1 Thus it is not entirely true to say that the Islamic faith caused these terrorists to behave as they did, although it may have been a radical interpretation of these beliefs that led them to act as they did.
A Clash of Value Systems
In the United States, we are taught to be tolerant of people with other belief systems and different values than ours. We value the freedom to express ourselves in whatever way we want. However, this can also lead to a relativistic and false view that there is no objective good by which to judge some values as good and others as bad.
Yet freedom is not the right to kill, even if someone says that they believe in massacres. So the Moussaoui case reminds us that there is an objective right and wrong, and that sooner or later we have to make a choice about what is good and what is evil.
If Moussaoui were insane, it may have been easier to understand his case, but this possibility was ruled out after his psychological assessment during the trial. The fact is that he made his choices freely, according to the values of the group he wanted to connect himself with.
Making a Prudential Judgment
Moussaoui pleaded guilty to all of the charges against him on April 22, 2005, but the court did not accept his plea at first because they were suspicious of his motives. The complexity of the case was not only in the clash of value systems, but also in the subject matter. Moussaoui is the first person connected with the 9/11 attacks who has been tried in the United States, there was a concern that the emotional desire for revenge would cause the jury to forgo a just and reasonable judgment.
The heightened sense of injury, and the intense emotions that surrounded the case made it a particular challenge to make an objective sentence. “Man is sometimes confronted by situations that make moral judgments less assured and decision difficult. But he must always seriously seek what is right and good … (CCC 1787).”
The jury took care to make sure that Moussaoui was not acting out of real insanity, that he had professional consultation to help him understand the court proceedings, and that he would not plead guilty in a hasty and unconsidered way. The care that they took in order to give Moussaoui a just trial shows a certain degree of forgiveness. The virtue of forgiveness does not mean letting a dangerous criminal go free, but it does mean to let go of the anger and hatred in order to make a rational decision about the best thing to do for the person and the general public.
Considering the Death Penalty
France and Germany, assuming that America would give the death sentence, expressed their protest against this. Yet the case was not as clear-cut as many may have thought. Capital punishment requires that the jury come to a unanimous decision that the person “intentionally participated in an act…and the victim died as a direct result of the act.” Linking Moussaoui in a definitive way to the 9/11 attacks was difficult.
Some of the American public asked that he be absolved from the death sentence, because of a personal belief that this should not be an option. Others thought that it would give Moussaoui a glorious martyr’s death, when a life imprisonment would be a worse punishment.
The Catholic Church does not prohibit the death penalty, especially if it is “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor (CCC 2267). However, it clarifies that the punishment should be non-lethal if the authority has the means to protect the people in another way, such as imprisonment. John Paul II said that in modern times, with all of the means available, the cases in which the death sentence is a necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” (The Gospel of Life, 56).
No matter what the person has done, there is still an inherent dignity in that person due to the fact that he is a made in God’s image. God never stops loving him. If he has done serious evil he should be restrained, but to emphasize this dignity, and also to give the person a chance to convert his heart before he dies and faces eternal judgment, the Church seeks all other possibilities before execution.
One of the 12 jurors reported that the panel voted 11-1, 10-2 and 10-2 in favor of the death penalty for each of the three charges that could have merited execution. Since the death penalty requires a unanimous vote, Moussaoui instead received a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
As he left the court, he said “America, you lost and I won.” Even at this point he tried to go back on his testimony, and say that he really had not been involved with the attacks, but the sentence had already been executed. On May 13th, 2006, Moussaoui was flown to Colorado to begin his imprisonment.
Zacarias Mousaoui chose a path of hatred and violence. He will now have the rest of his life to think over his decisions. We do not know if he will eventually change his attitude, but his case illustrates the fact that our choices make us into a certain type of person.
Both a saint and a terrorist make choices about the type of person they want to be. This is part of the drama of being human. This is why Christ came to show us the way to be truly human. The world needs more persons who show that real freedom lies in following the way of Christ, not the way of hatred and violence. The consequences can be tremendous for ourselves and for the world around us. Let us ask our Lord to help us make the right choices.
1740 The exercise of freedom does not imply a right to say or do everything. … By deviating from the moral law man violates his own freedom, becomes imprisoned within himself, disrupts neighborly fellowship, and rebels against divine truth.
2306 Those who renounce violence and bloodshed … bear witness to evangelical charity, provided they do so without harming the rights and obligations of other men and societies.
I saw the dead, the great and the lowly, standing before the throne, and scrolls were opened. Then another scroll was opened, the book of life. The dead were judged according to their deeds, by what was written in the scrolls. (Revelation 20:12)
Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. (Matthew 26:52)
Everyone is to obey the governing authorities, … Magistrates bring fear not to those who do good, but to those who do evil. … You must be obedient, therefore, not only because of this retribution, but also for conscience’s sake. (Romans 13:1,3,5)
Under the guidance of Christ the Messiah, we must work together for this project of harmony and peace, stopping war’s destructive action of hatred and violence. It is necessary, however, to make a choice, choosing to be on the side of the God of love and justice. (General Audience January 25, 2006)
Its followers (Islam) worship the same God and willingly refer to the Patriarch Abraham. That is why I wanted to meet the representatives of some Muslim Communities, … in the hope that fanaticism and violence will be uprooted and that we will always be able to work together to defend human dignity and protect the fundamental rights of men and women. (General Audience August 24, 2005)
Saints and Heroes
Patron of Police Officers
St. Michael the Archangel St. Michael the Archangel appears in both the Old and New Testament. He shows God’s power and justice. In the Old Testament he helps Israel do spiritual battle against the evil tyrant Antiochus. (Daniel 12:1) In the New Testament he appears fighting for the rights of God and as helper in God’s judgment. (Revelation 12:7) Because St. Michael fights against evil Pope Pius XII named him patron of police officers in 1950. We can invoke him in our battles against temptation and in our efforts to bring justice to the world.
Doing Good in the Midst of Evil
St. Clotilda (475-545) A woman who suffered much, but who did great good. Clotilda’s parents were murdered by her uncle, King Gundobad, when she was a child. She was raised at the court of her parent’s murderer. Later, she was given in marriage to the pagan King Clovis, king of the Franks. She continually invited him to become a Christian. At first he mocked her faith, but eventually he became a Christian and with him many of his subjects. Clovis died eleven years later. The rest of her life was saddened by the deadly fighting between her three sons over their inheritance, but she dedicated her life to helping the sick and the poor.
Absolved – to pronounce free from guilt or blame; acquit
Ambiguous – having two or more possible meanings; not clear; uncertain
Convert – to change basic attitude or orientation
Forgiveness – giving up resentment against or the desire to punish; pardon
Inherent – existing in someone or something as a natural and inseparable quality, characteristic, or right; basic; inborn
Objective – unchangeable; not depending on how one feels
Relativistic – having no objective right and wrong; moral confusion
Responsibility – to be answerable for something; accountability
Tolerant – having understanding and acceptance of other people’s beliefs.
- What were the main issues surrounding the case of Moussaoui?
- Why was it difficult to reach a verdict in his trial?
- Do you think Moussaoui was given a fair trial for the crimes he had committed? Why or why not?
- How can this idea of freedom for all, and tolerance of everyone in America, be misused or misunderstood? What are the dangers of believing that “everything goes”?
- What kind of understanding of freedom do we have as Catholics that is different than just the governmental understanding?
- Why should the death sentence be avoided if at all possible?
Are there any hard decisions you are debating in your life? Or, can you remember a time when you had to make a moral decision and you did not know the right thing to do? What helped you to figure it out? What are some things that we have in the Catholic Church to help us decide what is the prudent judgment?
What does it mean to you to forgive your enemies? Do you have any enemies, or anyone who it is hard for you to forgive? What should your forgiveness look like?
Hold a class debate for or against the death penalty. Encourage students to think through the arguments, which may be different from a worldly perspective versus the perspective of the Catholic faith.
Students choose a book about a famous person who had to overcome a difficult childhood or another traumatic experience. They write essays on how the person overcame that difficulty and brought something good out of a bad situation.
Alternatively, watch a movie in class that illustrates the virtuous choices a person makes faced to the difficult situations around them (i.e. for older students, “The Hiding Place”).
Hold a prayer service in which the students can pray for their own enemies, for the enemies of the nation, and the enemies of the Catholic Church. Pray for them, as the first act of kindness that Christ asks of us in the Gospel. This can be done in a spontaneous manner, or can be prepared by having students think of one person/group in each of the three categories to pray specifically for.
Moussaoui formally sentenced still defiant http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12615601/.
Moussaoui lies ‘let 9/11 happen’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4850988.stm