Can the Death Penalty for Terrorists Fuel Violence?

Created: November 25, 2009 08:25 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

Attorney General Eric Holder (WDCpix) Attorney General Eric Holder (WDCpix)

When Attorney General Eric Holder announced earlier this month that the suspected plotters of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks would be tried in civilian court, he also promised to seek the death penalty for all of them. But the heated debate that followed over the supposed dangers of trying “the worst of the worst” in a New York federal court has largely eclipsed the question of whether the death penalty is actually the best punishment for convicted terrorists.

[Law1]Some of the men have not only proudly claimed responsibility for the attacks, but also said that they want to be executed and martyred. Setting aside any moral concerns about the ultimate punishment, it’s not clear in this case whether the death penalty would act as a deterrence or an incitement to other potential terrorists. When it comes to jihadists who willingly risk or relinquish their own lives for their cause, is the death penalty really such a good idea?

“It is in the strategic interests of the United States to deny these most heinous Al Qaeda terrorists what they want most: martyrdom,” wrote Ken Gude, associate director of the International Rights and Responsibility Program at the Center for American Progress, in a report released earlier this month. “Al Qaeda will exploit an execution by the U.S. government as a significant propaganda victory, no matter how fair and legitimate the trial,” he added in an article in The Guardian.

Even former Attorney General Michael Mukasey said last year that he hoped that these men would not be executed. Asked by students at the London School of Economics in 2008 whether he thought the Sept. 11 defendants, who were then facing military commission trials, should get the death penalty, he said: “I kind of hope they don’t get it. Because many of them want to be martyrs and it’s kind of like the conversation, you know, between the sadist and the masochist. The masochist says ‘Hit me’ and the sadist says ‘No.’ So I am kind of hoping they don’t get it.”

Other legal experts agree, but for different reasons. “I think the fact that the defendants want to be executed shouldn’t count either way,” said Michael Dorf, a law professor at Cornell University, who advocated against the death penalty for these suspects when they faced military commission trials last year. “However, I do think it is legitimate for the government to worry about the possible counter-productivity of the death penalty here. That is, if the government had concluded that executing [Khalid Shaikh Mohammed], et al were likely to substantially aid Al Qaeda in recruiting, a decision not to seek the death penalty could be based in part on that worry.” According to Dorf, executing the men not only wouldn’t deter other terrorists from committing similar crimes, but could even encourage them.

This debate comes at a difficult time for President Obama and his attorney general. The president has promised to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center by Jan. 22, but faces huge challenges. Those range from where to try the suspected terrorists housed there to where to send those that have been cleared for release but can’t be sent home due to potential persecution or political instability. Republicans, citing the dangers to the United States of trying terrorists on our soil and claiming the terrorists don’t deserve the rights accorded to criminal defendants in federal court, have pushed to try most terror suspects in military commissions. Many Democrats, prominent legal experts and former military leaders, on the other hand, have argued that civilian federal courts are better-equipped to handle such cases and would confer a legitimacy on the trials that is critical to restoring the United States’ reputation around the world. In deciding to try the Sept. 11 suspects in federal court, then, the Obama administration is eager to look like it’s still being tough on terrorism and its perpetrators. That may be influencing the decision to seek the death penalty.

Other countries have faced similar debates in the face of repeated terrorist attacks, and ultimately decided that executing terrorists was counterproductive. Although the death penalty is now outlawed in all European Union countries, when the U.K. House of Commons debated whether to repeal the death penalty in Northern Ireland in 1973, there was widespread agreement that executing terrorists, who often wanted to martyr themselves, would only lead to increased violence and terrorism.

The question raises a classic conundrum for criminal law theorists. Punishment in the American justice system is supposed to punish the criminal in a way that seems proportionate to the crime and also deter others from committing similar acts. But if suicide bombers are blowing themselves up for the cause, how much of a deterrent is the death penalty to these sorts of terrorists?

“It doesn’t make sense as a deterrent,” said Columbia Law Professor Jeffrey Fagan in an email. “Deterrence assumes a rational actor who perceives that the punishment costs exceed the benefits of the crime, and who will not act against his or her own self-interest. in this case, the punishment is no match for either the rewards of striking a significant blow at ‘The Great Satan’ or the rewards of martyrdom.”

Richard Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, agrees. “Terrorists expect to die or want to die,” he said. “There’s a chance that the death penalty feeds into that.” After the federal death penalty in the U.S. was expanded in 1994 to include terrorism, Dieter notes, “the very next year Timothy McVeigh blows up the Oklahoma federal building. So I don’t think anybody believes it’s much of a deterrent. It might even be an attractor.”

Of course, another purpose of criminal punishment is retribution. Under that theory, the criminal is supposed to get his just desserts –– an eye for an eye, in biblical terms. “For retribution, it doesn’t matter what his preferences are,” says Claire Finkelstein, professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

“Simply put, these monsters who specifically target civilians have no right to live,” wrote Rabbi Stuart Weiss, director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana,in a recent op-ed in the Jerusalem Post, arguing that Israel, which has abolished the death penalty for almost all crimes, should reinstate it for terrorists. “They have forfeited the most basic human privilege by virtue of their crimes; any punishment save death is too good for them and is an obscene insult to the grieving victims of terror.”

It’s the classic notion of retribution. “The idea is that you return to the defendant what he has inflicted on the victim,” said Finkelstein. She herself doesn’t really think that’s possible, though. “There is no way to kill this man nearly 3,000 times, or force him to experience what his victims suffered as they tried to escape the twin towers,” she said.

Still, logical and even strategic considerations are often not what guides such decisions.

“There’s a lot of politics involved,” says Dieter. The Obama administration’s latest decisions on closing Guantanamo and trying terror suspects in federal court has opened it up to a rash of criticism from conservatives . “Maybe it’s part of this total picture that we’re closing this prison down there but that doesn’t mean we’re going to be soft on them,” said Dieter. “Once you open up the whole political world, the calculations are different.”