Sally Regenhard was always opposed to the death penalty. But she changed her mind when she traveled to a Virginia courtroom and came face to face with convicted 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui in March. “It was clear to me that if one of those assigned [terrorists] couldn’t have made it, he would have been ready in a heartbeat to jump in,” says Regenhard, whose 28-year-old firefighter son, Christian Michael Otto Regenhard, was killed at the World Trade Center in the September 11 attacks.
When Moussaoui’s trial ended this week, the jury did not vote unanimously for his execution. Instead, the unrepentant Moussaoui was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release. The decision drew a range of reactions from relatives of the 9/11 victims. Like many family members, Regenhard, who founded the Skyscraper Safety Campaign in her son’s name, says she was relieved that Moussaoui would be locked away. But the possibility, no matter how slim, that he might one day escape prison or inspire others with his anti-American rants made her angry. NEWSWEEK’s Jennifer Barrett spoke with Regenhard about the trial and sentencing. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What was your first reaction when you heard the verdict Wednesday?
Sally Regenhard: Initially I thought: OK, let it be. But I hear now that Moussaoui is continuing to mock the verdict and this country. And his mother is now saying she will apply for him to serve his sentence in France. Now I feel the decision was truly a mistake. If there is any possibility that this man could someday get out and get pardoned, I think it is outrageous.
Some have argued that if Moussaoui got the death penalty, he would be viewed as a martyr.
When I hear about him being made a martyr and that it will give others a reason to justify attacking this country, it really irks me. Anyone who is under the assumption that by us sparing his life it will in any way ameliorate the feelings of the terrorists and what they want to do to this country is grossly naive … As we speak there are tens of thousands of radical Muslims who are training and conspiring to attack us again—not just here, but around the world. No one should think that letting this guy off the hook will help us.
You used to oppose the death penalty. What changed your mind in this case?
I am not a bloodthirsty person. I was against the death penalty before this, and I am sure my son was, too. [ Breaks down in tears ]. He was a lover of life and freedom. But my son got no chance at life. He did not escape the death penalty, and Moussaoui should not have either.
You spent a day at court, observing the proceedings. How did that affect your feelings about Moussaoui?
That was one of the most important days for me in the last four years. It was my only chance to get a modicum of justice, to see what justice looks like. The families of the victims never had their date in court. When I went to the courtroom, I had an open mind. I really wasn’t sure how I would feel. But then I listened to the evidence presented by the FBI agent [Harry Samit, who arrested Moussaoui a month before the attacks] and the case that was made. And I observed Moussaoui and his defiance, his absolute focus on killing Americans—innocent civilians—and his reveling in the murder and destruction of 9/11. I looked right into his face. I was only about 20 feet away from him at one point, and I wanted to be. That was my version of confronting him. I wore a red blouse to stand out and—please, excuse me [ begins weeping ]. I get emotional when I think about my son. I wore red because my son was so passionate and red is also identified with the fire department and it represents the blood of the innocent victims who were slaughtered.
What was your impression of Moussaoui?
He looked like a demonic gargoyle and he has these dead, dead eyes. I went to Catholic school when I was young, and the nuns used to say that the eyes are the windows to the soul. My son had eyes that were so blue and so passionate. But Moussaoui’s eyes were dead. During the breaks, Moussaoui would jump up and say "God curse America!" or "God bless Osama bin Laden!" That helped convince me this man was totally guilty. He knew about this. It was clear to me that if one of those assigned [terrorists] couldn’t have made it, he would have been ready in a heartbeat to jump in. I was convinced of that. These people are on a death mission.
How convinced are you that there are others like Moussaoui out there planning future attacks?
Anyone who sat at this trial—and I’m sorry more people weren’t allowed to sit in—would be worried. No one should ever relax his or her guard. There’s another one coming. I am absolutely certain of it.
Do you think the United States has done enough to protect its citizens from another terrorist attack?
No, we’re not doing enough … I have dedicated the last four-plus years to public safety. Every day I live it, eat it, breathe it and sleep it. People like us have more of a realization of the dire straits that not only this country but the world is in with fundamental Islamic terrorism … We were shamefully unprepared prior to 9/11, and on 9/11, and the majority of people died needlessly. They died for nothing. That outrage is not something that should dissipate. I have that same outrage today. I think 9/11 has been sanitized for the public. You can see it by the efforts by the city of New York to suppress the 9/11 tapes [of calls made to emergency operators by those in the burning WTC towers]. One of my goals [as chairperson of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign] for the near future is to get everything out on the table.
It must be painful to hear those calls or read the transcripts and to revisit the attacks again and again.
I think that the majority of families would say that nothing is more painful than having to live without your beautiful children and loved ones. What helps ease our pain a little is knowing that we may be able to help prevent another person from losing a loved one in an attack. This is why we are fighting so much. We need to revisit the past to prevent the same mistakes from happening again.