Monday, November 06, 2006

More on Saddam and the Death Penalty

Honestly, I don't want to pick a fight here, that's not my intent.  Both Paul and GC, however, have raised an issue that I've personally agonized over and struggled with for some time, so I'm unusually interested and engaged.  And, since I have some time, I figured I’d move this out of the comments and into a longer post.

Back to the point, I think Paul, GC, and I are all struggling with the same basic issue; namely, how does one square a general aversion to the death penalty (be that the aversion stem from moral/religious grounds, as I'm assuming, on good faith, that Paul's and GC's do, or on procedural/implementation grounds as mine does) with the notion that there are some people so evil and depraved and some crimes so heinous and disgusting that death seems to be the only fitting "punishment?"  

My gut answer is that the two positions can't be reconciled.  That, however, is not only discomforting, but also glibly discounts what is, by both Paul and GC, a very well thought out and rationally argued position.  They are correct, in my opinion, in their attempts to distinguish Saddam from other more "routine" civil criminals.  Even rapists and murders are a far cry from what Saddam and others like him are, and their actions, as terrible as they may be, pale in comparison to what they have done to other human beings.  That said, there is also some validity to the "slippery-slope" argument that says once one exception has been granted there will be another, and then another, and pretty soon we've moved the line back far enough that we're all pro-death penalty.  

The solution, it seems to me, is to settle on a single, universal criteria by which capital punishment is justified.  My concern here is that this is largely an impossible task.  Paul’s last comment from the post below seems a useful example.  He argues (or my interpretation of his argument is) that Saddam’s case is different because Iraq is an unstable, unsafe place and because his incarceration cannot be adequately guaranteed his execution is justified.  All of those things are true, Iraq is unstable and its justice system still very much a work in progress, but even granting those things, I’m not sure it justifies the conclusion.  In this case, the problem would have easily been solved by simple delay until those issues were resolved, however long it takes.  There is no statue of limitations on “war crimes” or “crimes against humanity,” so Saddam could have been justly been tried and convicted after a stable regime was established without any prejudice or procedural issues.  In addition, another solution would have been to try Saddam in another jurisdiction, one that for security and stability reasons would have met with Paul’s stated criteria for avoiding the death penalty.  Both of these arguments are ones that could be made against Paul’s position and may in fact be raised by anti-death penalty advocates.  Before GC appropriately reminds me, I fully understand that these arguments don’t take into account the need and political reality of trying Saddam in Iraq when they did.  I take no issue with the numerous positive benefits that Saddam’s trial has had on the political and social situation in a very volatile place.  Do those benefits outweigh the costs?  I don’t know; it seems to me that there are rationale arguments on both sides.  A further compromise might have been to bifurcate segments of the trial.  In other words, complete the guilt phase now, and hopefully reap the above-stated benefits, while delaying the sentencing phase until a more stable country can be established.   (I’m not going to take issue with the Church’s position regarding non-lethal means (see here) as I’m woefully ill-equipped to address them; except to say that they do not at first glance appear all that different from Paul’s arguments).   It seems to me that there were consequences to choosing to try Saddam when he was and the implications of that cannot be avoided by citing the civil unrest that currently exists.  Again, I’m not arguing against Saddam’s execution, but rather am merely trying to grapple with the issues that support of it raise, especially for those of us that seem to lean against the imposition of death by the State.

Paul’s argument raises the possibility of bringing in external factors into the deliberation of punishment (namely the state of civil society that will carry out the execution).  There is nothing inherently wrong with consideration of those factors, but it begs the question, where does it stop?  If the state of the civil society is a relevant factor, somehow independent of the traditional ones (i.e., seriousness of the crime, chance for rehabilitation, cost of life incarceration, etc.) than what other factors are relevant in determining which criminals are to be put to death and which are not?  Should we consider the fact that the death penalty is generally, at least in the United States, politically popular?  Should juries consider the political and social ramifications that an execution will have on the community harmed?  This assumes of course that “communities” are harmed by death justifying offenses.  Certainly this argument has merit in cases of serial killers or rapists, but what of the mere single victim crime?  Surely there is a “societal” impact for every crime committed, but should it be a factor in establishing criteria for the administration of death?  

Saddam’s situation may be unique in many ways, but I’m not yet convinced that it should be an automatic exception to an anti-death penalty position.  Maybe it qualifies under the rubric of “once in a lifetime” circumstances where the intangible benefits so manifestly outweigh the costs that we are all willing to overlook the bigger, deeper, more complicated questions?  Maybe Saddam is simply that offensive to many people, even those who ordinarily reject the state’s role in executions?  Maybe Saddam or others similarly situated (Milosevic, Stalin, Hitler, Castro, brutal dictators all) are the only exception that anti-death penalty advocates are willing to make?  As I said at the outset, I concur with Saddam’s execution, but don’t see how that is consistent with being opposed to the death penalty.  Hence, I can’t/won’t personally say that I am opposed to the death penalty.  The case for Saddam’s death at the hands of the people he oppressed is a very strong one, however, so is the case for life in prison without parole, especially on “moral” grounds.  For many people, myself included, the two positions seem irreconcilable, but it is an interesting issue worthy of our strong consideration, even if we all end up in agreement.


<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?