'Neutralizing' The Bad Guys

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. In the 1980s, for instance, British antiterrorist teams were accused of acting as if they had a license to kill suspects, whether they were Iranian dissidents holding hostages inside Iran's London embassy or IRA fighters on the streets of Ulster.

But the most controversial episode came under circumstances remarkably similar to those last week in Luxembourg. Seven years ago, in May 1993, a Frenchman named Erick Schmitt took 21 children hostage at their nursery school in the Paris suburb of Neuilly. He called himself the "Human Bomb," and had dynamite strapped to his chest. After 36 hours of negotiations, Schmitt fell asleep, possibly after drugs were slipped into food supplied by authorities. Police entered the school and shot Schmitt dead at point-blank range. His relatives cried murder, but charges against the police were eventually dropped for insufficient evidence. Two French magistrates wrote a book about the case, claiming the killing took place outside the law. The then Interior Minister Charles Pasqua sued the magistrates and won a symbolic settlement of one franc in damages. So legally, the cops were clean.

But morally? That's another matter. Hostage taking, although horrifying, does not have to end in killing. Just two weeks before Wasserbillig, a man in Norway took five children and two adults captive. The police simply waited him out, and in the end no one was hurt. It's not just the degree of force used at Wasserbillig that raises ethical questions, however. It's the emotions the shooting stirred in the public. "It's super," said a factory worker on the streets of that small town in Luxembourg. "Finally, it's over." Watching the stunned faces of the little children who were released during the negotiations, thinking about the rest who were still inside the school, it was natural for television viewers to want Bejaoui dead and applaud the police who nearly killed him. Suddenly it was easy for Europeans to feel in their guts how the families of crime victims in the United States might feel; how they might want to see the murderers of their loved ones eliminated, executed--neutralized--once and for all. Such emotions may not be humane, but they are quintessentially, universally human.