“…To Dangle His Heels in the North Wind”

Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has been sentenced to death by hanging for the murder of 148 Shiite men and youths in 1982, which was found by the court to be a crime against humanity. The major human rights organizations of the world have dutifully condemned the sentence. This is the kind of thing that causes knuckle-dragging conservatives to dismiss human rights activists as lilly-livered liberals, but I don’t think that’s fair. Opposition to the death penalty in all its forms is the “line” of the international human rights community, and understandably so. They consider it inherently barbaric and cruel and do not waiver from that position for fear of diluting a morally absolute stand. In situations such as these, human rights organizations are like the priesthood – they must be inerrant and pure because, well, someone has to be. Ask yourself if you’d prefer a dynamic in which no-one makes the argument.

Personally, however, I find it difficult to muster any care for Saddam Hussein, even on principle. I am, in general, opposed to the death penalty. There is indeed something inherently brutal, dehumanizing and terrifying about the state putting a human being to death as the end result of a judicial process. There’s no getting around that, whatever advocates of capital punishment might say. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, the system in application, even in a wealthy country of laws such as the United States, does not even approach the standard of inerrancy that would be required to avoid the monstrous possibility of putting the wrong man or woman to death. Wrongful convictions are constantly being discovered; think of those that aren’t. And finally, the structural inequalities and inconsistencies of the criminal justice system mean that those who receive the death penalty are overwhelmingly those with fewer resources to mount an effective defense and overwhelmingly those who killed the “wrong” victims, be they Caucasian or wealthy or both. The system is both arbitrary and consistently unfair and I cannot see how I could ever support its application, however strong my emotional impulse to see a killer die.

And then there’s Saddam Hussein. His crimes are so massive, his brutality and viciousness so extraordinary, his offenses against humanity so great that I cannot sincerely say he does not deserve to die. There seems to me something slightly grotesque about pleading for the life of a man whose victims we did so little to save, and something again grotesque about his being allowed to live out his life in relative comfort after torturing and murdering so many. I don’t claim any consistency on this point and again I don’t blame those who make the case – any moral principle taken to its logical extreme is likely to conflict with another in some horrific way. Just read Isaiah Berlin on that score.

But what does any of this mean in practice? It’s often said, not least by people like me, that ideological rigidity leads to political paralysis. But in this case the Shiites celebrating wildly in the streets at the announcements of Hussein’s penalty and the international human rights activists opposing it are at least staking out a position on the matter. I, however, shall have to remain paralyzed. I will not sign any petition or join any call to spare Saddam Hussein’s life, and I will not bay for his blood. Since I have no influence I don’t know that there’s much practical cost to this moral abdication. I only worry that such paralysis will inevitably become more marked the more I try to grapple with the world.

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