Monday, January 08, 2007

WWJE (Who would Jesus execute?): Thoughts on a new kind of public hanging

Early on the morning of December 30, Baghdad time, Saddam Hussein was hanged as punishment for his role in the 1982 Dujail massacre. We watched the unfolding story on television as it occurred, Friday evening our time. I think the coverage on CNN is best described as flashy and overproduced rubbernecking. I was overcome with a feeling of empathy upon considering the impending death of a fellow human being and the mental and physical suffering that might come to him. I sensed the appropriate reaction, as to any human suffering, was to give him a moment of silence. I sensed also that the graphics-driven and competitive atmosphere of 24 hour television news would not allow that sort of respect for the passing of human life.

One could argue that Hussein did not deserve our empathy and respect at the end of his life. Perhaps he was an evil man; he certainly committed and ordered evil acts. Perhaps because of his own actions while living he deserved nothing while dying but death itself. Perhaps he even deserved in some sense a slow and painful death. I certainly understand if others did not feel the empathy I felt. But the underlying question here, I think, is this: What is the purpose of state or government execution? Does a government take a human life out of a sense of justice, punishment, or revenge?

In the United States, at least, there is an almost institutionalized sense that Blind Justice takes the life of a criminal who the legal system deems has given up his or her right to life by committing a capital crime. It seems there is a long history of shielding the identity and limiting the agency of the executioner, such that, symbolically at least, rather than a person being given the authority to take another human being's life, the criminal's life is ceremoniously taken, as if the indifferent hand of Justice herself turns the switch off on the life of a criminal. This is all the more true as states have moved from more overtly violent and bloody forms of execution, such as death by firing squad, hanging, or electric chair, toward forms of execution, such as lethal injection, that theoretically increase the dignity of and executioner's distance from the execution (though California and Florida have recently called the humanity of lethal injection into question as well).

I am an opponent of the death penalty in general; it has been outlawed in most democratic countries, and should be outlawed in the United States as well. It is most difficult for me to accept execution carried out not as Blind Justice, but in the midst of unfettered and unconcealed rage. The method of Saddam's execution is one of the more violent, as it often takes a matter of minutes for death to be complete (though in Saddam's case it was apparently mercifully swift). But what made Saddam's death an overt act of revenge, what robbed his execution, if not Saddam himself, of dignity in death, were the taunts and angry outbursts, and the general atmosphere of hatred that filled the room as the noose was tightened and the gallows dropped.

In the immediate aftermath of the execution, the big story seemed to be the investigation and prosecution of guards who surreptitiously recorded, and subsequently broadcast, unsanctioned video of the the hanging. That is, the problem being focused on was not the lack of dignity with which Saddam was executed, but the fact that it is possible for anyone to watch the hanging without interpretation or editing. It seems there are those who would like to conceal the bare facts of this historically significant event, facts which appear to make even George W. Bush uncomfortable.

Saddam's death seems in many ways to be the culmination of the United States' invasion of Iraq. It is something that many (though clearly not all) Iraqis wanted long before the invasion, or were not unhappy to see occur. It is an official and final end to a dark era. But it was precipitated by the United States' invasion, and, for all the initial talk of weapons of mass destruction, bringing down Saddam seems to me to have been on the agenda of Bush and company when they led the call to invade. Saddam's downfall, dignified or not, may be welcome to Bush and others, but if we applaud these ends, we must also accept both the means used to get us there, and all the additional outcomes, including over 3,000 US soldiers who will not be returning home.

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