The recent hanging of Saddam Hussein has generated a fair amount of interest and commentary. One thing heard quite often, and from the usual suspects, is how terrible this hanging was in particular, and how bad the death penalty is in general. Complaints have also been made about the trial of Saddam itself.
All these complaints deserve a response, especially on the ethics of the death penalty. I believe a good case can be made for capital punishment, but now is not the time nor place. Thus a future article will deal with that issue.
But it is the silly doctrine of moral equivalence that I want to address here: the idea that we are, morally speaking, no better than Saddam was, because we allow the death penalty. I think that is just foolish and ethically infantile thinking, but it needs to be addressed. Two recent commentators can be drawn upon here to flesh these issues out a bit more.
William F. Buckley, writing before the hanging (Nationalreviewonline, December 29, 2006), makes some observations which are worth recounting. He begins by noting what the trial was actually about: “The court ruled on only a single barbarity, namely the Dujail massacre. That involved murdering about 150 Shiites. They were being punished for conspiring against Saddam. Most of them were, simply, shot. But not all. Some, we learned, were inserted into meat grinders.”
Of course Saddam was responsible for the deaths of many more people. “We are reminded that there is no mathematically satisfying way to measure the life of Saddam up against all the lives he destroyed. As well suggest that an execution of Hitler or Stalin or Mao could ever have balanced the scales on what they had done. Capital punishment is exacted, in modern law, as punishment for taking a single life. Taking hundreds, thousands, millions of lives mocks the very idea of executable justice. But the symbol of Saddam on the gallows is a symbol of justice pursued, even if plenary satisfaction is not possible.”
There is clearly a deterrent effect with the death penalty. What it will be following Saddam’s death remains to be seen. But the stakes are high, and as Buckley reminds us, “the Arab world seems crowded with young men who are prepared to blow themselves up provided they can simultaneously blow up other people.”
He concludes, “It was rumored, in 1946, that the hangman in Nuremberg adjusted the nooses of some of the condemned to magnify the pain of suffocation. Such sadism was not called for then and is not called for now. But if fornication is wrong, there is no denying that it can bring pleasure. The death of Saddam Hussein at rope’s end brings a pleasure that is undeniable, and absolutely chaste in its provenance.”
Writing in the January 1, 2007 Townhall.com, after Saddam’s hanging, Jeff Emanuel offers further thoughts on the tyrant. He spends some time recounting the steps that led up to the trial, then looks at the trial itself: “The charges involved – the 1982 killings of 148 Iraqis in the small town of Dujail – were not as catchy or as interest-piquing as the subject of his future trials, which were to be for such things as the killing of countless Shiites in the 1970s and 80s, the 1988 gassing of thousands of Kurds in Halabja, the disappearing – and executing – of up to 182,000 people (mostly men, but including many women and children) in Anfal in the same year, the 1991 slaughter of thousands of Shiites and Kurds after their post-Gulf War uprisings, and the 1999 killing of students who demonstrated against the regime in Najaf.”
“The trial itself, though not without flaws, was carried out both openly and effectively, despite the claims of such ‘human rights’ organizations as Human Rights Watch (HRW) that the trial was ‘so flawed its verdict was unsound.’ Perhaps HRW particularly enjoys condemning affairs in which the US is involved, though they in comparison to the actual human rights abuses around the world, because they, like the UN (both of whom have nothing but words and suggestions to offer), know that, of all the world’s nations, America will actually listen to what they have to say. Regardless, HRW, which had condemned Saddam repeatedly in the past, seems, characteristically, to have all too short a memory – especially regarding the lack of ‘free, fair, and flawless’ trials Saddam offered to his hundreds of thousands of individual human victims.”
And the verdict was the right one: “There is little question that Saddam deserved his fate. ‘It’s a very solemn moment for me,’ Feisal Istrabadi, Iraq’s deputy U.N. ambassador said Friday night. ‘”I can understand why some of my compatriots may be cheering. I have friends I can think of who have lost 10, 15, 20 members of their family, more. But for me, it’s a moment really of remembrance of the victims of Saddam Hussein’.”
Continues Emanuel, “And the number of those victims is staggering. Istrabadi estimated the total number killed during Saddam’s rule to be nearly two million people, from the mass killings of Shiites, Marsh Arabs, and Kurds, to the Iraqis killed in the Iran-Iraq and Gulf Wars. ‘Up until April of 2003’, he said, ‘Saddam was still having people murdered, and filling mass graves with bodies’.”
“‘Saddam was very fond of Josef Stalin,’ added Istrabadi, saying that the dictator had sought to emulate the killer of 27 million of his own countrymen in his own rule – a fact that was borne out by the number of Iraqis who perished during Saddam’s purges, slaughters, and temper tantrums.”
He concludes, “On a personal note, beyond all of that, as someone who has been to Iraq, and who – along with plenty of others who served – has seen the mass graves and the torture chambers with his own eyes, and has met men whose children have been murdered, wives and daughters raped, and limbs removed by Saddam’s underlings simply for their day’s entertainment, I can unequivocally say the following: Saddam’s execution provides an opportunity for a sigh of relief from actual lovers of humanity – not façades like HRW and others – that such a murderous criminal will never again harm another human being. And that is always a good thing.”
Critics will argue that the violence in Iraq will continue. Of course it will. As long as there are Islamic militants who hate the West, then the bombings and terror will continue. But as Emanuel notes, although Iraq is still on the brink, there is one less killer. Three cheers for that fact at least.