After World War II, Winston Churchill initially opposed war crimes tribunals. He believed hearings would afford Nazi leaders dignity they didn’t deserve. Instead, the losers should be dispatched without benefit of trial: Why not just hang the bastards?
Time marches on, I guess. Current British PM Tony Blair spoke out against Saddam Hussein’s death sentence when it was handed down in November after the two-year trial. Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema used outrage over the former leader’s hanging Saturday to urge the United Nations to enact a worldwide death penalty moratorium.
The two statesmen represent elite European consensus on the subject. The death penalty is thought beyond the pale — abolishing it is a prerequisite for membership in the European Union. The London Economist recently editorialized, “capital punishment [is] wrong in itself, however wicked the guilty party,” even the very wicked Hussein.
It’s also sort of gauche. James Fallows is a former Carter speechwriter and an old hand at the Atlantic whose writing represents the leading edge of respectable opinion in the U.S. His thoughts on Hussein’s capture and hanging are interesting because, like so many Baby Boomers, he couches these judgments in the experiences of his generation.
Fallows tells us that he is okay with “[d]eadly force as necessary in military or police campaigns.” (Made peace with Vietnam? Check.) He is even satisfied with the bloody way the U.S. military dispatched Hussein’s two sons. However, “calmly-administered death, via the guillotine or the noose”? That is very clearly “something else.”
“[A]t this stage of life I am flatly against capital punishment, even for the worst of humanity,” Fallows admits. When he was a younger liberal he may have “listened respectfully to arguments about ‘deterrence'” — note the scare quotes — “and the importance of society’s being able to administer the gravest of penalties for the gravest of offenses,” but he’s put away such childish notions: “I’m in my 50s now, and I think: this is barbaric.”
Fallows also thinks that the method of Hussein’s execution “will haunt us.” It was a rushed affair that Americans had tried to delay in deference to a Muslim holiday. The executioners wore ski masks, making them look vaguely terroristy, and they acted so boorish that Prosecutor Munkith al-Faroon almost left the room, which would have halted the execution.
The crowd and the guards taunted their old ruler by chanting the name of the Shiite rebel military leader Muqtada al-Sadr, which prompted him to tell them to all “go to hell” and challenge them: “Is this what you call manhood?” We know this because members of the audience smuggled in cell phones with camera technology and recorded the proceedings. Their efforts were quickly posted to YouTube and other public forums, which is a huge reason for the hue and cry over the execution.
It’s incredible to see a dictator’s death used as evidence in favor of ending the death penalty, but that’s what’s happened. Opponents of capital punishment usually make an exception for those responsible for mass death (i.e., Tim McVeigh). That didn’t happen this time because the crowd’s misbehavior, and the old dictator’s forceful words, made an impression.
Critics allege that vengeance, rather than justice, was served by Hussein’s execution. They further charge that it served only to inflame “sectarian tensions.” It’s an important argument because of the precedent it would set: If the death penalty didn’t do any good here, what good could it ever do?
Of course, one could argue that the execution did some limited good. Hussein’s death is no “turning point” in America’s occupation of Iraq but it forever ended any hope that he would come back to power. The audience wanted vengeance but it’s hard to argue the hanging wasn’t just. They were dispatching someone who had dealt death on a fairly massive scale. Finally, Saddam Hussein’s response shamed his tormentors, and that shame was broadcast to the world. It was a belated plea for decency from a man whose actions had been anything but.
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