Front-Page Noose

It appears, in case you have not heard, that the ruthless tyrant Saddam Hussein — under whose monstrous and sanguinary reign hundreds of thousands were tortured and killed, including entire villages upon which he unleashed chemical weapons — is about to be hanged. At the risk of startling my friends on both the left and the right, I must say that I rather wish he weren’t.

To be sure, many of the usual and more general arguments against capital punishment — that it is not an effective deterrent, or that it is sometimes inflicted upon the innocent, for example — do not apply here (if they are compelling arguments at all, which is an open question — see, for example, the discussion here). In Saddam’s case, there is no doubt whatsoever that he is deserving, as surely as anyone who has ever lived, of the severest retribution. He is guilty beyond the slightest shred of doubt, and the enormity of his crimes so far exceeds in scope and scale that which would be within the power of even the wickedest of ordinary men that questions of deterrence hardly seem relevant.

So why am I, who have argued all along that Saddam’s brutality was, quite on its own, sufficient justification for the invasion of Iraq, not cackling cheerily at the imminent prospect of his twisting on the gibbet?

First, I have little enthusiasm for capital punishment these days, for the simple reason that it seems to me that to take the life of someone who is entirely at your mercy, no matter how evil he may be, is morally coarsening to the one doing the killing. I adduce no philosophy in support of this view, and shall direct the reader to no higher authority on the matter; I offer no defense or argument other than to say that to my own conscience it feels wrong.

I realize quite well that such a statement carries no argumentative force, and I do not expect it to alter anyone else’s views on the matter.

There may also be some practical value to keeping Saddam alive, in order that information in his possession can be extracted at some later date, and one might argue further that to walk him to the gallows in haste would deny his other surviving victims — and there are many — the chance to confront him personally with the suffering he has inflicted.

I admit, though, that it might well be necessary to extinguish this evil man, once and for all, to allow the Iraqi people to be well and truly certain that this Hydra-headed beast will never, ever, return. Such considerations may indeed trump any moral misgivings I may have about capital punishment generally, though it should be made quite clear that this is an overtly utilitarian argument, and utilitarianism is not without its moral pitfalls.

Christopher Hitchens has taken up these points in a recent essay, and, as is often the case, my views coincide, generally, with his. Read his article here.

Related content from Sphere