Monday, November 06, 2006

The Saddam Exception

Anyone within earshot of a radio or television yesterday or today now knows that former Iraqi dictator (and terrorist collaborator, for those of you still in denial) Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death by hanging at the hands of the people he formerly abused. While his trial, with its periodic ups and downs, made the O.J. Simpson farce look like Inherit the Wind by comparison, the proceedings have been brought to a conclusion. The Iraqis that sat on his jury cited overwhelming evidence of his crimes against humanity as the basis for their verdict, and Saddam, unlike the countless people he tortured, maimed, and slaughtered over the years, will have the benefit of a civilized appeals process before he is put out on the yardarm.

Those of you who know me (or read TPS) know that I am opposed to capital punishment. I am a convert to this position, having been an ardent supporter of it during my younger years. The justifications that I previously used in support of capital punishment -- namely, that families deserve justice, that it serves as a deterrent against crime, and others -- are no less true than they were a decade ago for me, but the difference is I have come around to the idea that they should be irrelevant in the calculus because the state simply should not be in the business of taking human life. (I could discuss this topic for days, so I will spare you. Please note, however, that my personal conversion does not mean I miraculously find it unconstitutional. The death penalty, by any honest reading of the Constitution, is permissible, and it will remain permissible until the Constitution is amended, "evolving standards of decency" be damned.)

I am willing to make an exception to my opposition of capital punishment in Saddam's case. Why? It is precisely because Saddam is so much more than a criminal.

Saddam Hussein is not your typical defendant. He is the former dictator of a Middle Eastern country with a population in the neighborhood of 25 million. He still has a broad swath of Baathist followers -- some in Iraq, some in Syria -- who spend the portions of their days when they are not killing Americans and Iraqis fantasizing about springing Saddam from his prison cell and restoring his regime to power. In our dangerous world, where other dangerous individuals have escaped from prison with the help of terrorist allies, we cannot allow for the possibility, however remote, that Saddam might somehow slip his bonds and live to terrorize another day.

We may have just witnessed a trial, but make no mistake: this was not within the confines of ordinary criminal justice. Many capital punishment opponents (or at least those who are intellectually honest) will acknowledge that there is a huge difference between someone who is executed after committing a civilian crime and someone who is tried and executed after his role in international war crimes or crimes against humanity. The honest assessor of the situation will have no choice but to see that Saddam falls into the latter camp. As such, his continued existence is a serious liability, since he not only clearly could pose a threat were he to somehow escape confinement and join his followers, but also because of how he inspires Sunni opponents to positive change in Iraq. His death is not only essential to assuring reformers that his way of life will never again threaten their own, but also for deflating the expectations of his followers with an eye toward conquering them.

Saddam's death at the hands of the state needs to be welcomed. Call it follow through on a promise.

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