'Neutralizing' the Bad Guys

Article excerpt

When a deranged immigrant took 46 little children and six nursery- school teachers hostage in Wasserbillig, Luxembourg, last week, officials said they would try to "neutralize" him. For nearly 30 hours they negotiated with Tunisian-born Neji Bejaoui, 39, a black belt in karate who had a history of domestic violence and mental illness, according to police. They brought his psychiatrist into the talks. They heard Bejaoui tell how distraught he had been since his own children were taken from him by social workers in 1994. But negotiations seemed to be going nowhere. So a police team disguised as journalists from a Luxembourg television station lured Bejaoui out into the open for an interview he had been requesting. He is said to have been holding a hostage child under one arm, and a grenade in his free hand. The police opened fire, and dropped Bejaoui with two bullets. The child escaped unhurt. "The goal was to neutralize him," Luxembourg's Interior Minister Michel Wolter told NEWSWEEK. "You can imagine what sort of neutralization two shots to the head produces."

SAFE AND SOUND, read headlines across Europe. There was, naturally, widespread relief that no child and no teacher was physically hurt. And the undercover police probably acted in "legitimate defense," as the lawyerly phrase would have it. Bejaoui was armed and dangerous--why take risks with a man carrying a hand grenade? Bejaoui even survived the shooting, apparently by sheer luck. He is now listed in stable condition. Yet the way in which the drama ended raises disturbing questions for Europeans who are proud that they've banned capital punishment, and appalled by it in other countries. For many, rejection of the death penalty has become a test of what it means to be civilized. Politically and diplomatically, it's a basic criterion for membership in the European Community: countries that continue to execute criminals need not apply. When Europeans balance their morality against that of an America that electrocutes, gasses and poisons convicts, they find America wanting.

So what to say when European police, defending the innocent, move to eliminate a threat to them once and for all? Wasserbillig was only the most recent of many disturbing incidents. …