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Khalid Sheikh Mohammed And The Death Penalty: Why We Can't Kill Him

Mar 18, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is on trial for his life in New York City. He is the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks that killed thousands and launched two wars that affected millions. If he is condemned to death, we all lose. Period.

I posted a survey on the Air America web site a couple days ago that posed the following question: If Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is found guilty of playing a role in the 9/11 attacks, should he get the death penalty?

By noon yesterday, Air Americans were feeling bloodthirsty. 53% wanted to see Khalid Sheikh Mohammed killed for the role he played in the attacks.

I have to confess that your reaction sickened me somewhat. Sorry, but much as I love talking about health care reform with you all and however the finer points of cap and trade may fascinate us mutually or the question of why Somalia's pirate problem twinkles like a new coin to our natural curiosity as a political type, I no longer feel like I'm on the solid ground of a shared worldview.

It would be so easy to point out that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed wants to get the death penalty so he can be martyred. That alone should suffice to make folks want to throw him in Florence, Colorado's Supermax for the rest of his life. But that is neither here nor there.

Disturbed by the numbers, I wanted to be sure I was seeing a real trend, so at noon Wednesday I reset the poll to 50% for the death penalty and 50% against it. Boo hiss. Deal with it. It was premeditated. I wanted to see how liberal you are.

Oddly, the momentum changed and by evening 54% of Air Americans were against the death penalty for KSM. What conviction! Regardless the herd instinct at work, I went to bed that night feeling a little better about the world. By yesterday morning, however, my mood was as dark as your apparent desire for mindless revenge: 53% wanted to see another murder to solve the problem of mass murder. A seven-point swing.

There is no solving the problem of mass murder. We can only hope to move past it, and perhaps that the spiritual and emotional wounds of 9/11 will turn into the proud flesh of a new humanist outlook.

Do you believe in capital punishment or not? In extreme cases, you say? Then you believe in it. And if you do, vote Republican. Get a gun, and send that annual check to the NRA. Live all the stereotypes of the social conservative movement and just be a more obvious and honest part of the problem. And also? Go to church. Or maybe not. Somehow it seems like religion--or rather the subtle hate groups folks mistakenly call "organized religion" these days--(I consider myself religious, by the bye) is the last place to go if you want to find a humanitarian point of view. Do you think Pat Roberts would spare KSM's life if he had a gun pointed at the back of the man's head (or what would be more likely, had someone pointing it)? Is that who you want to be? Pat Roberts? Bill O'Reilly? Ann Coulter? Cry me a river, Glenn Beck.

It is the height of arrogance for a human being or a group of them to decide who gets to live and who doesn't. When someone takes it upon him- or herself to make that decision for another human being, they deserve to be removed from society. Prison is a good place to put these people.

Many of you out there will say I'm arrogant for denying someone the validity of their anger and desire for vengeance. To make matters worse, I would say that this point of view gave rise to the birthers and to tea party protests across the country this past year.

Wanting an eye for an eye is an outmoded point of view. Take a breath. Are you a killer, too? If so, don't you also belong in a prison separated from humanity?

Real progressives are not killers. That's the GOP. While conservatives live by fear and feel the need to destroy anyone and anything that does not agree with them, we try to open a space for discourse that allows people to see how they are similar, how we're all in this together.

We don't have to tolerate hate, and we as a global society will not, if we can help it, allow monsters to mingle with the rest of society. We can remove a bad element forever. But we cure our sadness in anger by helping others, not by helping ourself to the fire water of panicked hate and ire, and by doing the next right thing.