Houston Chronicle Editorial
January 3, 2002


No Slam Dunk


Plenty of Americans have made up their mind about Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged "20th hijacker" in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Prosecutors, who brought Moussaoui to court this week to enter a plea to the various terror-related charges against him, also appear to be feeling fairly confident of convictions on the counts. But legal experts warn this case might not be so cut and dried.

Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent who will be the first person prosecuted in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, was in jail charged with immigration violations when hijackers crashed planes in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Clearly no potential top gun, Moussaoui apparently was so lame a flight school candidate that school officials notified federal investigators they thought he was some sort of public risk. But that doesn't make one a terrorist.

Neither does the fact that Moussaoui looked into crop dusters, bought knives or tried to buy flight-deck training videos. The government's contention that Moussaoui received tens of thousands of dollars from Ramzi Binalshibh, a man alleged to have close ties to some of the hijackers and who might have been the original 20th hijacker except that immigration authorities refused to let him into the country, comes closer to the mark.

Still, it's a lot of circumstantial evidence. In order to prove its claims that Moussaoui conspired to commit international terrorism and aircraft piracy, destroy aircraft, murder U.S. employees and destroy property, prosecutors are highlighting all the similarities between Moussaoui's and the actual hijackers' actions leading up to Sept. 11.

At the same time, Osama bin Laden's video-taped statements that many of the terrorists did not know the purpose of the operation until they were about to board the planes could make it harder for prosecutors to show Moussaoui knew why he signed up for flight lessons and the rest. That could make it harder to nail him specifically for the Sept. 11 attacks, legal scholars say.

Moussaoui could face the death penalty on several of the counts against him. It's tempting to call for his head in summary vengeance for the thousands of dead and tens of thousands of affected family and friends. But it will be satisfying to see the justice system produce a fair outcome, as it surely will, the American way -- with justice for all and for all to see.

Copyright 2002, Houston Chronicle. All rights reserved.

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