Friday, April 21, 2006

Now and then a few words — spontaneous, unrehearsed — slice through the thickest intellectual smog. For example:

There is someone… Huh? Down, down, down. Sit down…. Please, please, don’t hurt me. … Down. No more…. [Female voice] I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. [End female voice] No, no. Down, down, down… .

Words like these, from the cockpit of United Flight 93, on September 11, 2001, as played last week for a jury in the Zacarias Moussaoui case — shall we weigh them against squawks and interjections like “Guantanamo” and “Abu Ghraib” and “Bush lied” and “Where were the WMDs”? We don’t have to, of course; but if we don’t, what a chance we miss to learn something about the war on terror. And about ourselves.

The war wears on us. Iraq itself wears on us. Last weekend found pundits and politicians contemplating whether the president ought to fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. On Page 12, the day after Easter, the New York Times noted “Iraqi Shi’ite Factions Struggle to Solve Political Impasse.”

Down, down, down… I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.

The language on the cockpit tape is, on the one hand, the language of malice, hatred and pitilessness; and, on the other hand, the language of defeat and despair.

I don’t want to die.

Think the terrorists care? Think individuals of this ilk so much as acknowledge the humanity of their victims? The terrorists see naught but metal ducks passing from left to right in their shooting gallery. Ping. Ping. One more. Got another. Or, as one of the cockpit captors put it subtly, as he and his comrades drove Flight 93 to its destruction, “Allah is the greatest, Allah is the greatest.”

Moussaoui deepened the spectral darkness with his courtroom throwaway-line to the effect that none of the sufferings heard on the tape, certainly not the agony of the doomed, moved him in the least.

The stinking, lousy son of a… let that go, nevertheless. A more urgent point is on the table, whether Moussaoui goes to the death chamber or to a maximum-security prison cell for life.

The point is that half the time nowadays we seem to take our eye off the ball — or the target — in the war on terror, finding more time to discuss the who-leaked-what, cryptic document than the beastliness of a clique that has pledged to destroy the (corrupt, immoral, infidel, you name it) West, with maximum loss of life. Millions — why shouldn’t they kill millions of us?

They yet might. It depends, in part, on our capacity for self-delusion. Who’s the bad guy around here these days? Don Rumsfeld? Zacarias Moussaoui? The semicomical aspect to the whole matter is that the ultimate head of the U.S. military effort in Iraq inspires more disdain than one of the conspirators who helped destroy 3,000 American lives.

Perhaps because we have higher expectations for presidents than for illiterate mass-murderers? Would that be it? Whatever the case, the moral discrepancy should be plain as day. Here, we put on defense counsel and earnest psychological witnesses to the supposedly disordered state of Moussaoui’s mind and the awful upbringing he had — abusive father and all that.

The Anglo-Saxon legal system accords to any foe the whole range of rights he would pitilessly destroy, given half a chance. It is a point eminently worth noticing. Except, it is harder to notice than you might suppose, given our present fascination with George Bush’s “blunders” and “deceptions.”

That public officials must be held to account seems obvious. That a great people seem more emotionally involved in incapacitating their own leaders than in identifying and punishing enemies is not a sign you would normally call cheerful. Except to the enemy, who must be atwitter over every indication of flagging American will in Iraq and elsewhere.

Please don’t hurt me…. I don’t want to die. The voice of American victimhood? Or a road sign pointing to the moral recovery of a sorely conflicted people? In due course, we’ll surely see.

William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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