No victory for civilisation

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Earlier this week Zacarias Moussaoui, as we all know, was given a life jail term for his role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks: having prepared to participate and failed to alert the authorities while detained for a visa violation. This report details the exchange between Moussaoui and the judge, and between him and relatives of people killed in the attacks. Yesterday the London Times printed this column by Gerard Baker, who opined that with the verdict, “America won something quite big this week in Alexandria”:

It won back something it has lost a little of in the past few years. It reminded a world that has grown a bit doubtful that the United States still represents the very highest ideals of humanity — freedom, fairness, compassion and above all, justice.

(More: Stumbling and Mumbling, Opinionated Voice.)

Baker thinks the sentence the right one, given that Moussaoui himself killed nobody. However, the trial demonstrated that due process was still the order of the day, and that he received a trial, which is more than the likes of Nick Berg received. What casts doubt over the notion of this sentence being a victory or a demonstration of American “civilisation” is the conditions in which Moussaoui will be detained: the Florence “Supermax” prison in Colorado. The Times has these two articles ([1], [2]) on this, from which these quotes are taken:

He can look forward to a lifetime of solitary confinement in a facility that houses 399 other high security prisoners including former al Qaeda operatives, drug barons, and ganglords. Set in the middle of the desert and equipped with sophisticated surveillance technology, the prison is considered almost impossible to escape from. Most of the prisoners are held in solitary confinement for 23 hours every day. For one hour each day they are allowed to exercise in a concrete chamber, fettered by leg irons and handcuffs. Prisoners stay in sound-proofed cells measuring seven feet by twelve. Each cell is bolted shut with a steel door. The psychological effect of long-term solitary confinement is profound, leading to prisoners suffering from hallucinations, anxiety, depression and self-harm. One former prisoner David Clark told The Guardian in 2002 of extreme restraint methods used by the prison, even during family visits. “Your family has to look at you chained up like Hannibal Lecter or something. They have to look at you in pain, squirming,” he said. A taste of life ahead was offered by James Aiken, a former prison warden called as a defence witness during his trial. “We are not preparing him for a return to society. We are not even preparing him for a return to the general population. The mission here is incapacitation. “Time takes a toll on all of us, something he doesn’t even know yet. I have seen them rot. They rot.”

The comparison with Alcatraz is telling: Alcatraz, like this jail, was used for the most difficult inmates during the gangster era of the 1930s. Even so, the website Alcatraz History notes that the first warden, James A Johnston, while a strict disciplinarian, was known for “strict ideals and [his] humanistic approach to reform”, and called the “Golden Rule warden” when in charge of San Quentin. One of the principles Johnston brought to Alcatraz was that no inmate would have special rights, regardless of his public stature. He rebuffed attempts by Al Capone, who had mocked guards in other prisons because of their low wages and had persuaded them to work for him, to “con [him] into allowing him special privileges”. Most importantly no inmate was sent straight from court to Alcatraz: it was reserved for the most difficult, violent prisoners. (According to this site, the story of the teenage orphan sent to Alcatraz for stealing $5 from a village store and post office is inaccurate: Henry Young was a bank robber and murderer.)

While this prison does house difficult gangsters and men who have murdered inmates in jail, it also contains a number of men whose danger in the prison system itself is less clear: they include Omar Abdel-Rahman and the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid. Unless these prisoners were already known as dangerous inmates, it appears that people are being sent into an environment vastly more restrictive than is necessary. Perhaps the excuse is to prevent them exposing other prisoners to extremist ideologies (as if others not convicted of terrorism but, perhaps, converted in jail, cannot already do this) or communicate with active terrorists on the outside (as if there are no other ways of doing this). But the real reasons are the same as the Guantanamo Bay scandal: it is simply for propaganda purposes, to “send a message” to terrorists (as well as anyone else who might fight for Islam against however tyrannical a regime) that this is what awaits them if captured alive.

It is also, let’s face it, harshness for its own sake. There will always be those who think that such punishments are more satisfying than the death penalty, and those who will be persuaded to accept the withholding of the death penalty because we can carry on making them suffer rather than giving the prisoner an easy exit. (This may be particularly attractive to anyone who does not believe that anything lies beyond death.) In this particular case, it allows the Americans to not only let a man rot but make him rot while pretending to the world that they are too civilised to just kill him. That a man involved in a conspiracy to stage a terrorist attack of this nature deserves a long jail sentence is not in doubt; no other western country would imprison anyone in such conditions for life (if they even have the facilities to do so). It demonstrates that the US government knows it can impress much of its population with such gratuitous cruel behaviour.

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