My first reaction on reading that Zacarias Moussaoui had been given a life sentence instead of death was the same as yours probably was. To wit, that justice was not served, that he has earned the Big Ticket and his head should be stuck on a pike at Ground Zero. Moussaoui, one of the 9/11 plotters, continued to express pride in his actions, insulted the surviving families of those murdered, and used his trial to give the finger to the United States.
After due reflection, and while I empathize with everyone who is feeling outraged, I have to conclude (reserving the right to change my mind completely) that the life sentence is, all told, probably for the best.
Not, mind you, because "we have to show we're better than them." Our sensibilities weren't so delicate at the Nuremberg trials, after a war that had cost more than 400,000 American lives and many additional injuries; when the world was still reeling from the shock of what had gone on in the German death camps. A dozen of those found responsible were soon dangling from the end of a rope.
And not on any Portia-like quality-of-mercy grounds ("It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes," etc.).
Instead, the reasons involve both practicality and, yes, the desire for punishment.
A death sentence would involve years of appeals, and during that time, Moussaoui would carry on being a center of attention. His courtroom antics and boasting would be widely reported and he could play the defiant martyr to his heart's content. He might well eventually win an reversal of the sentence, which would look to the jihadists like a victory and another sign of the Great Satan's weakness.
Instead, he will now disappear into the prison system. No more the big mouth celebrity. No reporters hanging on his every word. He will become a nonentity. In a maximum security penitentiary, he will surely have to be isolated from other inmates: even the worst of our worst will not feel the love for this man, and some if given the chance might show him their disesteem in imaginative and quite unpleasant ways.
So let him enjoy his own company year after year. I suppose they will let him have a copy of the Quran, which even he might tire of after the 200th reading or so, and a TV, to watch our decadent culture continuing despite his efforts. (I trust that not even our tender hearted and politically correct federal government will include Al-Jazeera on the channel menu.)
Oh, he will look forward to a Mohammedan heaven, right enough. But at the age of 37, he may need to wait quite a bit for it — who knows, maybe another 40 years. The first few weeks or months might be a bit of a lark, but once the novelty wears off and he gets it that he will be confined in a few small spaces for as long as he stays in this world, with nobody to cook up plots with, no infidels to listen to his harangues, he'll discover that the thrill is gone. With bare bodkin his quietus make? Sorry, the warden looks down on that sort of thing and won't allow it. Hunger strike to relieve the boredom of waiting for the train to Allahland? Sorry again, old boy, but prison management has met that sort of thing before and knows the routine for coping with it.
No, he'll just have to live with his soul, day. After. Day. After. Day. After …
Welcome to hell, Zacarias. Living hell.
Update May 5
Gerard Van der Leun at American Digest makes a powerful case that the life sentence is yet another mini-surrender. My rationale above applies only so long as the conditions specified remain in place. If Zac is permitted to give interviews, publish a book, have conjugal visits by his favorite wife/waif/camel, order takeout from Dean & DeLuca, subscribe to Modern Suicide Bombing, send Happy Ramadan cards to his friends in Saudi Arabia, or act as technical advisor for "9/11: The Musical," then the deal is off. The entire federal subsidy for the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio should be redirected into an award fund for Zac's successful assassin, and 100 million duplicate keys to his cell mailed to random addresses in Sicily, Mexico City, and Russia.