Published 01 Aug 05
Life worse than death for a terrorist
By Abigail R. Esman
World Defense Review columnist
Mohammed Bouyeri begged his government for death. Instead, they did something worse: They gave him life.
Bouyeri, 27, is the Dutch-born Moroccan Muslim radical who slaughtered filmmaker and columnist Theo van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam last November 2, shooting him multiple times before slashing his throat with a machete and stabbing a five-page letter into his gut. Afterwards, shocked bystanders watched in horror and amazement as Bouyeri calmly walked away, as one eyewitness described it, "as if he were just out walking his dog."
That, of course, had been the plan: Walk slowly, allow the police time to arrive at the scene, shoot a couple of them while he could and let them shoot him back. He would die a martyr, a suicide terrorist who had silenced one of radical Islam's most outspoken opponents forever.
It did not, however, turn out that way. Holland's cops are trained, not to shoot to kill, but to incapacitate. Their bullets hit Bouyeri in the leg, and he was immediately arrested.
In the months since, Bouyeri has been Holland's principal Man in the News, issuing statements and engaging in behaviors that baffle the Dutch justice system, though for those who have studied the concepts of Muslim extremism, they are actually unsurprising: He hadn't planned on being captured, he told the judge at his arraignment, but as long as he had been, he wanted to assert certain rights. He requested the death penalty from a government that has none. He composed a manuscript for a book entitled, "Grondwet Van Een Fundamentalist" (Principles of a Fundamentalist), which he attempted to smuggle out of the prison through a Muslim "brother" visiting him. He refused psychological testing, insisting he knew precisely what he'd done and why he'd done it, and that he would do the same again.
"It was for my religion," he said.
Speaking at his trial, he addressed not the court – representatives of a legal system he does not recognize because it is not the law of Islam – but Theo van Gogh's mother, Anneke, to whom he said, "I cannot feel your pain. I am not a mother. I do not have a son. And I am not an unbeliever." Theo's 14-year-old son, Lieuwe, listened, staring at the man who killed his father, a man who, according to reports, refused to meet his gaze. Apparently, he hadn't that much courage.
Courage, in fact, seems to be exactly the quality Mohammed Bouyeri most lacks – even more than he lacks empathy or emotion or the ability to see beyond his own self aggrandizing narcissism, the narcissism I would argue stands behind every incident of terrorism – particularly Muslim terrorism such as this. Death was easy: He would die feeling victorious, a messenger for Allah, a martyr and a hero. They would have played right into his hands, the Dutch, and he, no longer in this world, would be saved of suffering for eternity.
This is why, to all those who wish death to would-be suicide bombers, to those who, filled with the irrational rage that comes naturally in response to events like 9/11 or the 3/11 bombings in Madrid or the 7/7 killings on London or the butchering of Van Gogh, say, "Kill the bastards," I say, Oh, no. Degrade them with capture and incarceration. Do not honor them with martyrdom and death.
When I think of how Theo van Gogh suffered, bravely entreating his killer, "Don't do this. Don't do this. We can still talk about it," I think: Let his killer – and those who plotted with him – suffer, too.
Death is the easy part.
It is for this that I commend the Dutch for their handling of Mohammed Bouyeri. Yes, alive he remains a distant danger: Even in an isolated cell, where he is to be kept, he can still reach the outside world through an ever-hungry media and through visits from his "brothers" and "sisters" in the faith who will distribute what he writes. But this, if we handle it right, will pass. He will grow old and irrelevant. By contrast, the Dutch know well the political power of martyrdom: When right wing politician Pim Fortuyn was gunned down shortly before the Parliamentary elections in 2002, he was already one of the most popular candidates for office; after his death, that popularity shot through the roof, and his party – non-existent just one year earlier – won by a considerable majority of votes.
Unfortunately, I suspect the Dutch have, in this case, done the right thing for the wrong reasons. The decision to keep Mohammed B (as he is known) alive stems not from a wish to punish, to deprive him of a death sentence he in fact might have been granted, but was denied. The Dutch legal system has no such provision. Rather, Mohammed B was sentenced according to an otherwise laudable tradition of humanitarianism – exactly the kind of albeit well-intentioned humanitarian spirit that created the environment for radical Islam to breed in the Netherlands in the first place, infesting the muddy bottoms of its canals through the "tolerance" of preaching by extremist imams, of Saudi-sponsored schools, and in the creation of ghettos where Muslim immigrants, locked into a community of their own, had little contact with the language and the workings of Western culture, or Westerners with theirs.
Because you have to wonder what they could possibly be thinking when, even as sentencing Mohammed B to life in prison, the Dutch government does not revoke his right to vote. You have to wonder what could possess them to allow him, in fact, the power to create a political party of his own, even from his prison cell.
Have they not learned anything?
Of course, to vote – never mind run for office – would require accepting the legitimacy of a legal system he has till now rebuked; but one shouldn't put such hypocrisy past a man so determined to achieve a specific end.
Theo van Gogh stood for the free speech we in the West hold holy. Both his life and his death are testament to this. It was his voice for which we who knew him – or read his words, or listened to them – came to love him or to hate him, but in any event, respect him. The greatest honor we could give him now would be to deprive his killer of that voice – and make him live with it.
Abigail R. Esman is an award-winning author-journalist who divides her time between New York and The Netherlands. In addition to her column in World Defense Review, her work has appeared in Foreign Policy, Salon.com, Esquire, Vogue, Glamour, Town & Country, The Christian Science Monitor and many others. She is currently working on a book about Muslim extremism and democracy in the West.
Visit Esman on the web at abigailesman.com.
© 2005 Abigail R. Esman
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