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'United 93' and the 20th Hijacker
Moussaoui will never rot in prison.

Friday, May 5, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

Need an antidote to the Moussaoui verdict? Go out this weekend to see "United 93."

Zacarias Moussaoui is lucky the jurors at his sentencing trial weren't allowed to see the movie "United 93" the day before reaching a verdict. If they had, rather than handing him life in prison, it is likely that one or more of the jurors would have come out of the box to deliver the death sentence himself--just as the four doomed men on Flight 93 charged their hijackers to stop its fanatic pilots from flying the airliner into another American building.

Some will say the Moussaoui life sentence merely proves that we in the U.S. are beyond biblical justice, beyond an eye for an eye, even if our Islamic enemies do not bother to claim any grievance larger than resentment to justify the most startling slaughter of innocents all over the world. This argument--that the refusal to impose the death penalty on Moussaoui shows "we are not like them"--might have been entertainable before September 11. It may no longer be.

I saw "United 93" on Tuesday. With a verisimilitude that is hard to doubt, the movie enacts the essential events, and experience, of the hours on September 11 between the serene blue sky of about 7:30 a.m. and the point of impact at 10:03:11 a.m. when United Flight 93 flew into the ground at Shanksville, Pa. No question, it's a heavy load. Some will say, as has already been said to me: "I know all that. I don't need to see it."

But perhaps you no longer know September 11 as well as you think. In this week of the Moussaoui life sentence, it is pertinent to ask whether the days and seasons we've traveled from the time of September 11 have returned the people of America to a routine that feels more normal than perhaps it should. Our sense of normalcy may not be in our best interest.

As an example, one thought that occurred in the hour after seeing "United 93" had to do with the recent debate in the U.S. over the warrantless wiretapping of suspected phone calls between terrorists. In that hour, this "debate" seemed quite otherworldly. It is unlikely that in the first six months after September 11 Sen. Arlen Specter would ever have thought to intone that the wiretapping program was "in flat violation" of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But he does now. Times change.

At his trial, Zacarias Moussaoui mocked the families of his victims and said he wished that September 11 could happen again. We all read these accounts, shook our heads in disgust and turned back to work, as we should. Life goes on, and the Moussaoui trial went on for four years.

What fades from memory over time is the intense, active loathing that the Islamic hijackers had for their victims that day (though one guesses there is not a waking moment that the U.S. soldiers serving daily in Afghanistan or Iraq fail to hold in mind the nature of their terrorist opposition). "United 93" brings this and much else back to the surface.

Nothing could be more innocent than the fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, attendants and pilots on that plane. Like us at this moment, they were in the act of daily life. They were not combatants in any sense. They were targeted precisely because they were unprotected. During periods of peace, and we have had a long one, some people come to believe that this happy condition is the natural state of life. It is not. The unprotectedness of civilized, quotidian life was earned, over centuries, often in war.

To dedicate the act of murdering a stewardess, pilot or passenger to Allah in the course of committing such an act, as United 93's hijackers did, is to engage in behavior that is quite wide of the daily life of America and many other nations. Whether the Khobar Tower bombing, the USS Cole, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the bombings in Madrid and London, Bali, Jerusalem, the murder of Theo van Gogh, a great many people are being murdered in the service of Allah. In this respect, watching what takes place inside the confines of United Flight 93--and surely this movie is as close to the reality as one can imagine--is food for thought. Maybe just saying that you "know" Islamic terror exists out there isn't quite enough. If in 2006 we think that if Iraq would go away the world would not be too different than the world before September 11, then Moussaoui may in time prove right: "America you lost. I won!"

There is reason to believe that pre-9/11 thinking will in time return and prevail.

Defenders of Moussaoui's life sentence say he will "rot in prison." Perhaps in a better world Zacarias Moussaoui would share a cell with Hannibal Lecter. But if our moral betters aren't going to let Saddam's torturers rot in Abu Ghraib, if they aren't going to let the CIA's most important al Qaeda captives rot in "secret" foreign prisons, they certainly aren't going to let Moussaoui rot in Florence, Colo. He will be treated more than well.

Not to mention the Moussaoui trial itself. We arrive at the end of these interminable trial circuses of procedural delay and then claim "the system works" and "justice" has been done. No, it has done damage to the normal idea of justice. He saw the game early on and made a mockery of it. Moussaoui achieved a two-year delay in his trial by demanding to interview al Qaeda detainees. But our moral betters insist that the whole lot of Guantanamo detainees be given access to this same system of justice. They would diminish and crush it.

The odds were strong, as Moussaoui's lawyers knew and the government's should have known, that 9 of 12 jurors would vote that Moussaoui's childhood was "dysfunctional" and "mitigating." This is the therapeutic vocabulary that the West has developed to explain anything in the years from the postwar period to, say, September 11.

For quite awhile after September 11, we were a people united in the war on terror. By now we have let the adrenal pleasures of political fighting over the presidency dissipate the difficult emotions of staying united against a real enemy. The war in Iraq has contributed, but you can't lay it all off on Iraq. The ambiguity of the Moussaoui jury is a portent. See "United 93." It is very difficult. It should be.

Mr. Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page. His column appears Fridays in the Journal and on OpinionJournal.com.

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