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December 27, 2006

The Shame of Hanging Saddam

Writing about web page http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,,1978665,00.html

Albert Camus’s Reflections on the Guillotine opens with an anecdote of his father’s relish as he prepares to attend the execution of a man who murdered a family of farmers. His father laments the leniency of the guillotine for such a crime, and makes his way to join the baying crowd. He says no more upon his return, instead, he lies down and begins to vomit repeatedly. Camus argued that this should be the response of any reasonable human. The sense of nausea and revulsion i feel at the death penalty was one of my earliest moral responses.

I felt that same revulsion yesterday evening when i heard that an Iraqi appeals court has resolved to apply to its former tyrant a practice which can only appeal to the basest and most brutal human instincts. When Saddam’s original sentence was passed some put the strange but recurring argument to me that the death penalty becomes of none or of lesser concern when murderous dictators are involved. The absurdity of this argument would commend it to the dustbin of history were it not for the prominence it retains, blazoned as it is across the frontpages of best-selling tabloids.

Those who argue this are perpetuating the very barbarism they claim to be punishing. By breathing new death into the worst instincts of humanity they further guarantee the prevalence of the crimes they claim to despise. As Camus saw, ‘it is obviously no less repulsive than the crime, and this new murder, far from making amends for harm done to the social body, adds a new blot to the first one.’ Or as George Bernard Shaw argued ‘It is the deed that teaches, not the name we give it. Murder and capital punishment are not opposites that cancel one another, but similars that breed their kind.’

Too many understand the primary role of the law to be punishment. It should not be this at all, but rather the prevention of future crime. The death penalty is an emotional retaliation to murder rather than a rational, moral refutation of it. Human nature being malleable, the law should appeal to our better natures. All this applies equally to the execution of dictators. For human rights are either universal or they are nothing.

The pernicious effects of the death penalty go further. Those who argue for it help to ingrain a truly coercive conception of the relationship between the state and the individual. This has its effects in the field of nuclear weapons, the indiscriminate nature of which amount to states regarding individuals as disposable property.

Changes of leadership in Iraq have often been marked by the execution of the previous encumbents. Iraqis face a great struggle to salvage any tangible benefits from the immoral and disastrous invasion. But the abolition of state murder in their country would have been one. I should credit President Talabani and Deputy Prime Minister Salih here for taking this position. Given the chance Talabani would have refused to sign a death penalty but a special law established for the tribunal denies him this right. The trial itself fell far beneath legal standards meaning any verdict was as Human Rights Watch argued, ‘too unsound’ to stand. The political meddling that removed a judge for being ‘too lenient’, epitomised the often farcical events. All twists and turns pointed to a pre-established conclusion; that Saddam would be hanged.

Moreover, the trial has only examined the torture and murders in Dujail following an attempt on Saddam’s life. The rather different outcome that is now imminent leaves his other trial regarding the Anfal campaign against the Kurds eternally paused. His reprisals against the 1991 Kurdish and Shi’ite uprisings have been ignored. The trial has the stink of a hasty set of affairs driving towards a grimly inevitable ruling. How convenient that the Anfal campaign, when the US and UK colluded with Saddam, has only been skimmed. Destroying Saddam now means we lose the opportunity of ever achieving a lasting, comprehensive indictment of his rule. His victims are patrionised by this fumbled, half-baked trial. They are left with American platitudes and hypocrisy.

This trial should have assembled for posterity an inalienable judgement against the horrors of the old Iraq. Instead, it has been doused in the horrors of the new.


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