Don't give Hasan the martyrdom he wants

James Alan Fox

August 29, 2013


The 13 members of the jury of military officers took less than two hours -- lightning speed by courtroom standards -- to reach a unanimous verdict that Maj. Nidal Hasan should be executed for his 2009 rampage at the Fort Hood Army Base in Texas that left 13 dead and 31 more wounded.

My sense, beyond a reasonable doubt, is that no one was at all surprised by the outcome, including the defendant himself. After all, Hasan, who stubbornly yet purposely elected to represent himself during the trial, wanted nothing in the way of a defense to the capital murder charges to be employed on his behalf. And certainly, the military panel deciding on the proper punishment would have few qualms about killing an enemy, be it a terrorist or a traitor.

Notwithstanding the horrible suffering that Hasan caused his former Army comrades and their families, we should not reward him by granting a death wish. In e-mails to al-Qaeda leaders, Hasan had explicitly indicated an interest and desire to sacrifice his life to Islam. We should deny him his opportunity for martyrdom, not to mention any move that would put him out of his miserable existence confined to a wheelchair and to a prison cell.

The attention -- and sometimes sympathy from supporters -- that condemned political criminals derive through death has long been a concern of capital punishment opponents and even some supporters. In 2008, then-U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, a George W. Bush appointee who was hardly gun-shy when it came to the death penalty, spoke against executing the Sept. 11 terrorists imprisoned at Guantanamo for fear of casting them as martyrs and unnecessarily empowering Osama bin Ladan.

Through the ages, there have been countless instances in which executions had the unintended effect of advancing the condemned's stature in the eyes of followers and promoting the underlying ideology, be it religious or political. Actually, the effect may be unintended for the punishing authority, but very much intended by the one willing to be sacrificed for the greater good.

We were somewhat fortunate, for example, that Charles Manson's death sentence was vacated on constitutional grounds. He had many supporters worldwide who very well might have risen up against "The Man" had this self-style messiah been put to death. Having Manson age slowly and in relative obscurity in prison was the best outcome.

According to inmates at Terre Haute (Ind.) Federal Penitentiary, Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, indicated a desire for martyrdom. He purposely chose a meager diet to appear frail and emaciated, much like a Concentration camp survivor. And McVeigh deliberately chose not to fight his execution, apparently welcoming the chance to die a hero in his own mind, if not to others holding similar anti-government views.

And it would certainly be advisable for Attorney General Eric Holder to take a lead from his predecessor Mukasey by not pursuing the death penalty in the upcoming prosecution of one of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers. Rolling Stone "cover boy" Dzhokhar Tsarnaev already enjoys sympathy among a throng of supporters. The undeserved groundswell on his behalf would only be amplified were the federal government to become his executioner.

In Hasan's case, his refusal to put up a defense in court is even more reason for us to resist any urge to inflict the death penalty. He would come across to like-minded individuals as a defenseless ideologue, and the United States government would appear as an aggressor, using its great power to squash dissent.

Hasan might want to die, but let us not be the one to aid and abet him in his suicide plans. Let him experience the sort of lifetime of pain and suffering that awaits U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Patrick Ziegler, who is partially paralyzed and brain damaged due to Hasan's attack. Better yet, let Hasan have the same fate as many other convicted mass murderers, by living and dying in painful obscurity, hidden away from the spotlight of the media and worldwide attention that many find sustaining and reason enough to die.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors.