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Hearing Moussaoui


You had to read the papers very closely to see what Zacarias Moussaoui, who got life imprisonment after pleading guilty to conspiring in the 9/11 attacks, had to say at his sentencing. Most newspapers either buried his statement or left it out of the story altogether.

Curious, isn’t it? Don’t the newspapers think we’d like to see how Moussaoui justified his actions? They shouldn’t be protecting us from his words. We’re grown up. We can take it.

Or can we?

I shouldn’t have to say this, but I will: Seeking to understand the motives of someone like Moussaoui is not an effort to excuse his role, whatever that may have been, in 9/11. We live in a dark time if such knowledge is something to be avoided. Some people think they already know his reasons: he hates America. Why? Because we’re free and open and advanced and prosperous. It’s apparently okay to claim to understand his motives if, and only if, you accept the official U.S. statement of them. But if you see other motives at work — suddenly the effort to understand is suspect, even subversive. Moussaoui’s moral depravity should not give us license to impose motives on him. Simply stated, we might learn something from his own words. Let’s take the chance.

Moussaoui was given time to speak after some of the survivors of 9/11 victims expressed their pain and anger. But he didn’t get to say much, because the prosecutor quickly objected to what he called a political speech. This is unfortunate. Yes, Moussaoui was probably making the survivors feel bad, but they chose to appear at the sentencing and his statement might have had value in understanding what’s going on the world today. He shouldn’t have been silenced.

What he did say is worth pondering. Referring to one of the survivors who had spoken before him, he said, “Maybe one day she can think how many people the CIA have destroyed their life…. Your humanity is a very selected [sic] humanity — only you suffer, only you feel.”

One can forgive a grieving survivor for not finding Moussaoui’s words appropriate. But the rest of us should not be blinded by the monstrous acts of 9/11. The fact is, Americans are very selective in their concern for suffering. We were properly outraged by the attacks of innocents on American soil. But the pain inflicted by the U.S. government’s armed and covert forces on people in other countries, not to mention that inflicted by U.S.-supported dictators, seems to have no effect on the American people whatsoever. When has there been a public outcry against explicit U.S. policies that can’t help but kill, maim, and oppress innocent people? Maybe those casualties are not consciously intended, but they are completely foreseeable. Yet the policies are pursued anyway. At some point, conscious indifference is hard to distinguish from criminal intent.

Americans may plead ignorance about U.S. policies and their deadly consequences. But there is no excuse for ignorance today. Historical accounts of U.S. government conduct in the Middle East are available to anyone who cares to know. (How many people realize the U.S. government overthrew an elected government in Iran in 1953 and reinstalled a brutal monarch?) The Internet makes access to those accounts easier than ever. Books are steadily produced documenting the official crimes. Recent ones by Chalmers Johnson, James Risen, Stephen Kinzer, and others have been reviewed in newspapers and displayed prominently in Barnes & Noble. Willful ignorance of what one’s government does abroad in one’s name is disgraceful.

Moussaoui got what he deserved. Even so, we should heed his words. They weren’t the rantings of a lunatic, but the verities of a fanatic.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.