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Moussaoui Courts Death, and the Media, at Trial

For the past few weeks, reporters like myself have been sitting very close to a man in a green jumpsuit with "Prisoner" written on his back. The sentencing trial of Zacarias Moussaoui has given us regular contact with a man we once knew only from afar. He has been reaching out quite a bit, but I'm not sure we know him any better.

Thanks to a defense witness, we have learned much about how Moussaoui lives: Ordinarily, he only gets an hour or two each day outside his cell, and has no interaction with other prisoners at the Alexandria, Va., jail where he's being held. "Special Administrative Measures" guarantee that he can only speak with prison guards and attorneys, though he has had occasional phone calls with his mother. We know that twice, guards had to remove him by force from his cell.

So the chance to sit for weeks in a courtroom is probably a welcome diversion for Moussaoui. And he's taking full advantage of the opportunity to reach out to the media and the American public. His mien is that of the contemptuous guerrilla fighter, mixed with that of a truculent teenager. One moment he gloats on the stand, deriding the grief of family members who testified about the pain of their loss. The next day he is grinning and joking as psychologists describe his allegedly unbalanced mental state. Is he grinning because he really is unstable, really is imagining how George Bush will release him, a dream he says he believes in "100 percent"? Or is he delighting in the fact that his defense has already cost the U.S. government millions, and may cost even more in the years of legal appeals that lie ahead?

In narratives of 9/11, Moussaoui appears as a boob, a bumbler, the hijacker who couldn't fly straight. His decision to testify and "admit" that he was to pilot a plane into the White House comes off as a teenage boast by someone who was never as important as he felt he should be.

In court, Moussaoui's adolescent mischievousness takes flight. He regularly clowns for the gallery: He nods vigorously in assent when his defense team says Moussaoui believes they are out to kill him, then shakes his head just as vigorously when the defense describes how they've been trying to save him from the death penalty.

Judge Leonie Brinkema, whose grandmotherly patience with Moussaoui serves as a perfect foil for his irreverence, has tried to shut him down, most recently by telling him he can only stay in the courtroom if he behaves. He has responded by waiting until she and the jury are out of earshot for his regular commentaries, clearly intended for reporters' ears. "God curse America!" is, of course, a staple. Another is "God curse Zerkin and MacMahon," a reference to Gerald Zerkin and Edward MacMahon, his lead defense attorneys.

Moussaoui has assumed a role as Greek chorus for his own trial, as he skewers Western culture with his own knowledge of it. After a psychologist noted that many famous people suffer from schizophrenia -- including mathematician John Nash of A Beautiful Mind fame -- Moussaoui soon proclaims to the gallery, "A beautiful terrorist mind!"

After further debate about his sanity, the prisoner chimes in with, "Moussaoui flies over the cuckoo's nest!" That one had the press corps giggling in the elevator down to lunch. But when I tell my wife about these remarks, she wonders what's so funny. As in many emotional news stories, the media is desperate for comic relief, but real people are often simply horrified.

In the deepest sense, the man in the green jumpsuit remains a puzzle to us -- to the media, to the American public. Since the government will never allow terrorist bigwigs to be placed on trial, Moussaoui is as close as most of us will ever get to al-Qaida. But getting close doesn't mean we can figure him out.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.