To bear the sword in vain…

Sitting at Starbucks this afternoon, I have checked various news feeds with intermittent frequency. Conflicting reports are coming out of Baghdad about the impending demise of Saddam Hussein. Ambivalence best describes my mood about his being hanged in the next several hours.

I will state it up front, to clear any suspicions that my fundamentalist interlocutors may harbor. For the past two years I have waged an internal debate about the political and societal benefit of capital punishment. The death penalty seems less and less like an effective deterrent, and more and more like a momentary satiation of right-wing bloodthirst.

I remember the strange case of Michael Fay, who in 1994 was caned in Singapore for egging cars in the most hygienic of Southeast Asian republics. The 19 year old American student was tried, convicted, and sentenced under Singapore’s code of criminal procedure. He was afforded every due process of law, and his sentence was carried out on May 5, 1994.

The outcry of America was intense. The Singaporean government was unmoved. We all had a good lesson in the cultural differences of East and West that shape our courts of law. Rattan caning, as cruel and unusual as it seems for a modern, Western mind, does seem to be an effective deterrent in Singapore. I doubt many cars get egged or bridges get spraypainted there.

I think what has me raising questions about the moral consequence of capital punishment has more to do with my frustration that American evangelicals are some of the loudest and proudest hordes along the perimeter of the killing fields. Sometimes I wonder whether Jerry Falwell — had he been given the choice of releasing Barrabbas or Jesus or Nazareth — might have told Pontius Pilate to kill’em both and let God sort’em out.

Pundits on talk radio and Fox News are almost giddy basking in the near end of Saddam Hussein’s life. And as soon as he gets his fifteen seconds at the gallows, another “example” will emerge to take his place.

I’ve always respected the consistency of John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI. As the world’s most powerful advocate for human life, the Vatican has maintained a hard line against abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment. The sanctity of human life must be preserved for the physically deformed fetus and the mentally deranged tyrant alike. No life, the Roman Catholic Church has argued, must be weighed in a utilitarian balance of value. If one life is worth destroying, then no life is worth protecting. Or so the argument goes.

But back to Saddam Hussein.

I don’t think the man should be hanged. As the world watches, he’s sitting in his cinderblock cell penning his own version of A Letter from a Birmingham Jail. His execution will only exacerbate the hostility of Baathist and terrorists in the Middle East to an American presence. Some will argue that the United States is not executing Saddam, but few of us disagree that this government in Iraq lacks legitimacy as long as our military presence is required to enforce its every law.

It seems to me that the Iraqi government bears the sword in vain. And it seems to me that the United States government is going to play the Pilate, washing their hands of Saddam’s blood when everybody knows the real authority to execute is theirs alone. Fifty years from now people will be asking who killed Hussein. Was it the Iraqis? Was it the Americans?

Not since Adolph Eichmann was hanged in Ramla prison has a trial so public ended in a death so chilling. Hanging is ugly. But so is death by mustard gas, as certain Kurds discovered during Hussein’s iron-fisted rule.

I do not believe that Saddam Hussein is personally culpable for every brutal rape or horrifying torture that occured during his reign. Rogue soldiers and renegade officers will always step out of bounds. And while it may be easy for us to watch our network news and see the difference between Saddam Hussein’s toleration of crimes against humanity and George W. Bush’s handling of the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo disasters, we should remember that Muslims in the Middle East are not afforded the luxury of our sterile vantage of reflection.

People living in mud homes along streets littered by the shrapnel of U.S. artillery and the remains of terrorist self-detonations don’t see things as clearly as we sophisticated Westerners do. They don’t see that Saddam was much worse than we are. They don’t see much difference in a suicide bomber and a Marine sniper. We have lost the war of public opinion in Iraq, and I’m not sure that dropping Saddam fourteen feet by the neck will help us stabilize the country or get our soldiers home any sooner.

I wonder if somebody will slip Saddam Hussein a capsule of cyanide. I wonder how unsatisfied the bloodthirst would be if he offed himself like Hermann Gorring the night before he was supposed to die. I wonder what causes Saddam Hussein to be more afraid, death by hanging or life in prison without cameras to capture his hirsute visage blustering and blistering the “American invaders.”

At some point in the next hours, I hope that the deposed dictator finds himself fearing him who can destroy both the body and the soul more than those who can only destroy the body.

One thought on “To bear the sword in vain…

  1. Ben-

    I’ll have to admit that the first thought that crossed my mind when I read the report this evening concerning Sadaam’s death was that he was, for the first time, feeling the very separation from God that is ever present in hell. I found myself shuddering in response.

    I too struggle with capital punishment and I fear our all too quick attempts to condone the use of violence as long as it’s the “right kind of violence.”

    Thanks for the thought. I, for one, appreciate it.

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