The Death of a Dictator

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, 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.,_but_a_whimper

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17 Replies to “The Death of a Dictator”

  1. Talking about the symbol of Saddam on the gallows… Saddam was a big fan of the ancient Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. So much so that Saddam started to rebuild the derelict city of Babylon. Saddam was rumored to believe that he was the re-incarnation of Nebuchadnezzar and Saddam also rebuild Babylon using bricks with his name on them (mimicking Nebuchadnezzar 2500 years before him).

    Amongst the superstitious Sunni and Sufi communities, there was a mystical tradition that Saddam would return to power (even if it meant returning from the dead). Now I don’t know for sure how accurate this all is, but I got it from a reliable source, and if it is true – the death of Saddam would have released enormous relief for the peaceful citizens of Iraq, knowing that their decades long nightmare is finally over.

    Whatever else can be said and debated, the truth remains that (in my opinion) the death of Saddam was what freed a nation… not the allied forces.

    Joshua Ferrara

  2. “There is clearly a deterrent effect with the death penalty.” I’m sorry but it is not clear to me. Many states in th US have the death penalty and yet the crimes which they are meant to prevent are more prevalent there than they are here (where there is no death penalty), or even in other US states.

    I cannot understand how you, especially as a christian, can argue that there is a good case for capital punishment. I will wait for you to make that case though.

    Matthew Cramsie

  3. Dear Bill,

    May I ask a question? It is my understanding that key western nations supported Saddam during the period when some of the atrocities occurred. This appears to be motivated by a distaste for the change in regime in Iran in the late 70s when the US-friendly Shah was deposed by the Islamic revolution and ongoing support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. France, England and the US sold arms to Iraq and were happy to support Saddam before he invaded Kuwait, whilst millions died in the above war and various atrocities were committed.

    So how do you stand on our western nations supporting a regime which you consider to be murderous enough to justify murder (of Saddam), whilst merrily profiteering from armament sales (and other trade)?

    Andrew Lake

  4. Thanks Andrew

    But you need to distinguish types of killing. Murder is unjustified killing, eg, the deliberate taking of an innocent life. Thus Saddam was not murdered, but killed. I believe certain types of killing are morally permissible (eg., just war, the death penalty, self-defence, etc.) However, what Saddam did to his own people was indeed murder in most cases.

    And I do not buy your line that the liberation of Iraq was simply about profiteering.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  5. Hi Bill

    Thanks for discriminating between killing and murdering as you see it.

    My point was not about profiteering after the liberation of Iraq, but the willingness of governments and businesses of western countries to deal with the regime at a time it was committing atrocities before the Iraqi Kuwait and after the Iranian revolution and before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (ie late 70s to 89) – apologies if this wasn’t clear.

    Andrew Lake

  6. Thanks Andrew
    Yes there were financial problems, as the Oil-for-Food scandal demonstrates. And interestingly, some of the countries that were most opposed to the liberation of Iraq had key financial (oil) interests with it, such as France and Russia.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Matthew, since you imply that support for capital punishment is not Christian, then it is up to you to demonstrate a contradiction. It will be difficult, since the death penalty for murder is mandated thoughout Scripture, which Jesus said “cannot be broken” (John 10:35).

    And Andrew, countries supported Saddam against Iran for the same reason the Allies backed the murderous Stalin against Hitler – the lesser of two evils as they saw it.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  8. Thanks, Jonathan,

    For your clarificatory comments. I must say that as a non christian, I am much enjoying learning more about people’s alternate opinions! I am also beginning to comprehend better why christianity aligns with the right of politics (using the bible to sanction the dealth penalty for example, champion rogue states when it suits, etc).

    Andrew Lake

  9. To the person that would suggest capital punishment is not Christian I would say (as a Christian) I am more that abundantly aware that in God’s creation of a community under a theocracy (the history of Israel) there was capital punishment in the form of stoning. I’m not by any means suggesting we should return to stoning now, but im defending the pro capital punishment view of some Christians. So since God does not change and Jesus is the same now and forever – the suggestion and that Jesus is a peace loving non-violent hippy pushover is a misconception – this Jesus is the same Jesus who said ‘If anyone cause one of these little ones, who believes in me, to sin. It would be better for that man to be tied to a mill stone and be cast into the sea’ also this is the same Jesus who in Revelation returns to the Earth to defeat His enemy the beast and is dripping in blood. A little gruesome I know but a contrast to the peace loving hippy ‘Jesus loves you’ propaganda and closer to the real Jesus who is passionate about Justice being served in due time and by a righteous judge.
    Joshua Ferrara

  10. I am a conservative Christian but I am genuinely ambivalent about capital punishment. The Bible mandates the death penalty for murder in the theocratic Israelite nation but not for everyone else (Genesis 9:4-6 is future indicative, not imperative. Genesis 9:7 is a mandate because it is imperative). The Bible certainly allows for the death penalty but it is wrong to say that it mandates the practice with the exception of the nation that received the Mosaic Law.

    Saddam’s execution is an excellent example of why I do not support the death penalty. Everyone knew from before the trial began that he would be executed, and the administration of the execution itself required more from Saddam than simply his life – it robed him of his dignity. That wasn’t part of his sentence, and regardless of his guilt he was still a human being made in the image of God.

    Andrew: An apple is fruit but fruit is not an apple. Politically conservative Christianity is Christianity, but Christianity is not politically conservative Christianity.

    Damien Carson

  11. Damien says he is “genuinely ambivalent about capital punishment” but then goes on to say he does “not support the death penalty”. So which is it?

    I also used to be ambivalent about capital punishment until I understood that Genesis 9:6 was given to Noah before the existence of Israel and so is in an entirely different category to the Mosaic Law. As such it is a mandate to all nations descended from Noah. It is about justice – “dignity” has nothing to do with it.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  12. I’m sorry if I was unclear, but what I meant to say was, I am unclear. I used the word ambivalent in the sense of “to be in two minds” that is, to have a conflicting view or opinion about something. I am genuinely in two minds – I see the benefits of capital punishment, I see it’s abuses and I fail to see a commandment from God that a nation ought to apply it. Because I am ambivalent about capital punishment I do not support it.

    Ewan, I agree with you that Gen 9:6 is universally addressed to mankind and that it wasn’t a part of the Mosaic Law… and that is my whole point. I think where we probably differ is whether or not Genesis 9:6 is a commandment or mandate that governments should apply capital punishment to murderers. Exegetically, I can’t see any way of coming to that conclusion. Look at the verbs – those that talk about the requirement of blood in Genesis 9:4-6 are future indicative (or for Hebrew readers, Qal imperfect), not imperative. Genesis 9:7 is command/mandate because it is imperative.

    Damien Carson

  13. Another quick comment – the death penalty is all about dignity, and if there is a way of Gen 9 being properly understood to be referring to capital punishment, then the rational for capital punishment in this verse would be clear: “his blood shall be shed because man is created in God’s image”.

    Justice is that the sentence is carried out. Injustice is that the executioners take it upon themselves to add to the sentence, say, by heckling or tormenting the dead man walking.

    Damien Carson

  14. Damien Carson

    (Genesis 9:4-6 is future indicative, not imperative. Genesis 9:7 is a mandate because it is imperative).

    It takes more than looking up a tense-voice-mood program to deny the clear command in the Noahic covenant. There are more ways of giving commands than using a formal imperative. E.g. even in English “let him be taken away” is often a command even though it is formally in the subjunctive mood. Context determines meaning, and in Genesis 9 the context is God saying, “And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.”

    In any case, Paul reaffirms that the government does not bear the sword in vain (Romans 13). He also said, “If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die (Acts 25:11)” which states that there are crimes worthy of the death penalty. This is post-Mosaic.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  15. andrew lake

    You’re welcome. Although I would rather hope that my politics align with my Christianity not vice versa. That is why I am not a member of any political party. C.S. Lewis warned long ago against “Christianity and …”

    But you are right that Christians will find biblical support for supporting the death penalty for murder (and opposing it for unwanted babies in the womb). I’m not sure what rogue states you mean though, perhaps the leftist darling of Cuba, or maybe the former Soviet Union?

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  16. Jonathon – I agree with you that context is of the highest importance but it cannot be the sole determining factor of the meaning of a verse, otherwise, why would we invest the blood sweat and tears that we do in learning the Biblical languages (okay, so there is no blood!). But the matter of context is one to be taken up: (an honest question – no sarcasm intended) are there any examples in Genesis or the wider Pentateuch of commandments phrased in a voice (or “mode” in Hebrew) other than imperative, or is Genesis 9:6 unique? I will stand corrected, but I don’t believe that the subjunctive is ever used or could ever be used as a command (“let him be taken away” isn’t subjunctive, is it? I would have thought it would be passive imperative in Greek; jussive or hortatory in Hebrew).

    Second, are there any other covenants in which God does not speak directly to the person/nation when making his promise/condition? Genesis 6:9 is a statement of fact and we need to have a basis for considering it a covenantal commandment.

    PS: I agree with Paul that we should submit to the rulers of the day, which includes “do the crime, do the time”, even in the case of capital punishment.
    Damien Carson

  17. Damien

    Genesis 9:5 is the key:

    For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man’s brother I will require the life of man.

    The word “require” shows that this is a command, by the meaning of the word, even though it is qal imperfect.

    BTW, I support learning the biblical languages and contexts to understand the Bible.
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

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