Soon thereafter, as was his way, Moussaoui filed his own hand-written motion with U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema asking to be given certain additional due process rights. He cited my column, identified me as "the Jew Cohen," and argued that "if even mine (sic) worst enemy, 'the Jew Cohen' thinks I ought to have more constitutional rights then I ought to have more constitutional rights." It was an instant classic. I have a copy still in my files.
Curious that I had captured the attention of a confessed al-Qaeda soldier, I called Frank Dunham, then the federal public defender in Alexandria, Virginia, and asked him what he thought. "Yeah, you definitely made the list," Dunham told me. "You're probably 50th on the list of people he wants to get, I'm in front of you, and if he gets all the way to you we're in bigger trouble than we think," he said, laughing the whole time.
Dunham, a great lawyer and a wonderful man, is now gone. He died of brain cancer in November 2006. Moussaoui is gone too. He's serving a life sentence without parole at the Supermax facility near Florence, Colorado, where he spends 23 hours a day in solitary lockdown. But the "small fry" episode has stuck with me through the years because Dunham understood what so many of us have not about the makeup of al-Qaeda's "soldiers of God."
The terrorists who struck us on 9/11 were suicidal and soulless and they did a monstrously evil thing. But they were not of another world. They were not superhuman (or subhuman) monsters. They did not possess extraordinary powers of intelligence, skill, or cunning. That their plot against America succeeded beyond even their wildest imaginations earns them no extra credit. In many ways, they were as lucky as their innocent victims were unlucky.
What Dunham understood, and what is so lamentably missing from so much public discourse about terror law these days, is the notion that the terrorists we fight today, the ones we have captured and the ones who still elude us, are more like criminals than warriors, more like thugs than high priests of violence. Of course they pose a threat. But they are all just men. Mortal, fallible, and now mostly incarcerated. Cons, not pros. We shouldn't pretend otherwise.
America has a long, ugly history of demonizing its enemies, especially when they look, act, and speak differently than most Americans. The country was cruel to Germans in World War I and to the Japanese in World War II. And for the past 10 years now xenophobia has found a new calling: the dehumanization of Muslims, both the vast majority who are innocent and the tiny fraction who are not. It's time we stopped indulging in such national insecurity.
No civilian will likely ever again hear from or lay eyes upon Zacarias Moussaoui. But I am here to tell you, since Dunham can't, that the convicted terror conspirator was largely a buffoon. He was such a pain in the butt to Khalid Sheik Mohammed -- he kept calling KSM on a cell-phone -- that the 9/11 mastermind basically fired him from the 9/11 terror plot. Yes, Moussaoui was a proud member of al-Qaeda. But his federal jury in Virginia saw through his bluster.