My very first week in journalism was a real trial by fire. As a junior reporter in Washington for German news agency DPA International, I was sent to cover the 2006 sentencing trial of Zacarias Moussaoui. The French national is sometimes known as the 20th hijacker, and pleaded guilty to conspiring to kill Americans in the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.
Two things stuck with me from that trial. First, the heartbreaking visuals, including people jumping from windows of the World Trade Center. These played on the emotions of the jury but also served to create a court record of what happened on that fateful day. And second, the verdict itself: Moussaoui was not sentenced to death, as prosecutors had sought. It was a verdict that reinforced the independence of the US justice system, which in this case put emotion to one side and examined the evidence.
I found myself thinking back to that trial in recent days as I watched Donald Trump’s second impeachment. Like then, the visuals of the US Capitol insurrection were tragic and served to build a record of what happened that will serve a purpose long after the trial is over. I also couldn’t help but compare the two verdicts: this entire episode (admittedly a political trial and not a courtroom one) has felt like the opposite of the solid exercise in US justice that I witnessed at the start of my journalistic career.
So what’s the epilogue? Moussaoui, who is serving life in prison, showed no real remorse for his actions at the time of the trial but he did take responsibility. He even renounced terrorism in a court filing last year, proclaiming “unequivocally my opposition to any terrorist action, attack, propaganda against the US”. By contrast, I doubt that Donald Trump will ever accept responsibility for his actions; unless, perhaps, he is held accountable in criminal or civil court, as the Senate’s top Republican Mitch McConnell suggested on Saturday. If not, I expect he’ll soon repeat his unfounded allegations that November's election was fraudulent. What’s worse is that the US will have to remain vigilant against future attacks as a result. That’s the real miscarriage of justice.