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November 16, 2006

Executing Saddam: Christie Davies - an opponent of capital punishment - argues it is imperative that Saddam Hussein's death sentence be carried out - and soon

Posted by Christie Davies

Christie Davies is an opponent of capital punishment - even arguing that it was wrong to execute Adolf Eichmann in 1962 for his role in the Nazi genocide. But, argues Christie Davies, it is right - and imperative - to execute Saddam Hussein now.

For an execution to be justified, argues Christie Davies, it must not only be the case that the crime is sufficiently heinous and that there can be absolute certainty about the person's guilt - these two categories would clearly have applied to Eichmann - but also that the execution must serve some future purpose. By 1962 Nazism was dead as an ideology so executing Eichmann served no future purpose. Ba'athism and Islamic militancy are both still flourishing. Saddam must be executed for the same reason as Charles I, namely that he is a rallying point for continued civil war.

Everyone should be opposed to capital punishment. In order to inflict it in any particular case three very strict conditions all have to be met and it is pretty nigh impossible to meet them. Saddam Hussein's case, though, does amply meet all of the conditions and he should be executed.

The criteria are:

1. The person must be guilty of an extremely heinous crime and one committed deliberately by a sane person. Most crimes, including most murders, do not come anywhere near the extremely high level of wickedness that would justify the state in taking an individual's life.

I appreciate that many strongly religious people, particularly Muslims, who believe in the rightness of capital punishment will disagree with me. Many Christians, and Mormons in particular, will say that we are bound by the Noachic commandments, God's covenant with all mankind that decrees we must execute murderers:

Whosoever sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed.
[Genesis, 9:6]
They often add:
The land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein but by the blood of him that shed it.
[Numbers, 35:33]
That is why in Utah murderers were, until recently, executed by shooting, a mode of execution that literally sheds blood. I do not accept this arcane religious argument. It has been overtaken by the New Testament's emphasis on mercy.

2. We have to be absolutely certain that the person was guilty both of committing a given category of crime such as murder and that the particular act for which they were responsible was of the required standard of deliberate wickedness. This is very difficult to do. Judges are remote and weird and juries are often dolts and all human beings make mistakes. Given that the death penalty is irreversible it is better not to use it.

3. The execution must serve some purpose or else it is a mere act of vindictiveness. It is possible to express one's abhorrence of a wicked crime such as murder or a singularly brutal rape, or a long and cruel period of blackmail, through punishments that do not involve killing the guilty person. To justify an execution there must also be a utilitarian purpose to it, such as deterrence.

If murderers or rapists or blackmailers are deterred by the thought of execution, such that other lives are saved or indeed other potential victims' lives not ruined, then the execution is justified. It has reduced the amount of suffering in the world. Execution is not necessary merely in order to prevent a criminal from re-offending. Secure life-long confinement will do. Without an additional utilitarian justification capital punishment can not be justified. It was quite wrong to execute Adolf Eichmann for his unspeakable crimes against humanity. Whom did it deter? What further atrocities did it prevent? I can share the feelings of the Israelis who tried and executed him, but intellectually an execution can only be justified by looking to the future as well as to the past.

Yet deterrence alone is not enough. You could save lives by executing drunken drivers or negligent signalmen but it would be unjust. They do not deserve execution because their guilt is not sufficient. You can not simply use a person as a means to such an end without reference to desert. The British government has recently (and absurdly) pardoned all the men who were executed for desertion and other military offences during World War I. Even at the time no one saw them as deserving of death. They were executed merely to encourage the others. As soon as the war ended the sentences on all those who had been condemned to death for desertion and were awaiting the firing squad were commuted. There was no point in executing them, for it no longer mattered whether or not the army was willing to fight.

The other problem with deterrence is that you don't know who to execute. Three hundred men were executed for desertion (or similar serious offences) in World War I, but ten times as many were tried and found guilty and given lesser sentences and the actual number of offenders was far, far greater still. How can you tell which men or women to execute in order to deter, given that you are only going to execute a small proportion of them? Individual states in the USA justify having capital punishment largely in terms of deterrence but they do not execute most of their murderers, only executing in those cases where there are a number of aggravating and very few mitigating factors. But in that case, even if capital punishment does exercise a deterrent effect over and above life imprisonment without parole, a would-be murderer is not going to be seriously deterred because statistically his or her chance of being executed is very small.

The decisions about levels of culpability are so difficult and the statistics about deterrence are so poor that it is quite simply better not to have capital punishment at all. For this reason and because those who would run the system are at best human and fallible and at worst stupid and corrupt, we should all be opposed to capital punishment.

None of these arguments apply in the case of Saddam Hussein. He has been clearly shown to be a brutal mass murderer. His trial may have been flawed and may have upset the wretched "human rights" brigade but the verdict was accurate and the level of Saddam's wickedness is clearly up there in the Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Idi Amin high-monster division. He deserves what is coming to him; this is a necessary though by no means a sufficient condition for executing him.

What is more important, though, is the danger to others of keeping him alive. He has to be executed for the same reason as Charles I, namely that he is a rallying point for further civil war. If he is jailed for life, what happens if terrorists kidnap innocent hostages and demand his release? What happens if he is allowed to escape by corrupt jailers? The only way he can be permanently "contained" is by killing him. In the modern world even putting him on St. Helena wouldn't work. He might be snatched from captivity, as Mussolini was by Otto Skorzeny, to return to head a political movement in Iraq or in a sympathetic country. What would happen if his supporters threatened to blow up a cruise liner in the South Atlantic off the coast of St Helena unless he were released to them? Would you sacrifice their lives?

There were no risks of this kind with Eichmann, since German National Socialism as an ideology was long since dead, whereas both Ba'athist Arab socialism (a form of secular fascism) and Islamic militancy are both flourishing. The living Saddam still has strong support among radical Palestinians; they even supported and rejoiced in his invasion and sacking of Kuwait. It is not only the Iraqis' right to execute him, it is their duty.

It would be better to execute him not by hanging but by stoning in the traditional Muslim fashion. In this way all sections of the population can be involved, Sunnis and Shias, Arabs and Kurds, men and women and possibly also participants from Iran and Kuwait, the other countries he attacked and whose peoples he massacred. Afterwards his body should be burned and the dust released in a sandstorm in the desert, leaving no trace and no place.

It is meddling and hypocritical of the Europeans and especially the French and the Italians to get together to condemn the Iraqis' decision to execute Saddam. M. Philippe Douste-Blazy, the French foreign minister, has made Saddam's plight an occasion to proclaim that France and the E.U. are completely opposed to the death penalty under any circumstances and want to see it abolished worldwide. He said:

So for purely ethical reasons Saddam Hussein should not suffer the death penalty. But above all you also have to think that the situation in Iraq is excessively worrying and we are on the brink of civil war.
It is hardly fitting for the French to give the Iraqis a lecture about ethics, nor should the E.C. be an instrument for European cultural imperialism in relation to the death penalty. The United States and Japan retain the death penalty but it can hardly be claimed that their civilisations exist on a lower ethical plane than that of France. Iraqis may well feel insulted at being lectured at in this arrogant way by the French as if they were some kind of backward Third World savages.

It is particularly disingenuous of M. Philippe Douste-Blazy to follow up a pompous statement that the death penalty is always wrong and French moral sensibilities are superior to yours with an ambiguous reference to civil war. There probably will be a civil war in Iraq but it is clear that M. Douste-Blazy is sufficiently prejudiced as to be unwilling to see that in such a context, keeping Saddam Hussein alive is far more dangerous than executing him. The dangers of his becoming a martyr are far less than those of the living man causing, or being a source of, further violence.

The other odd comment is that of Cardinal Renato Martino of the Vatican's oddly named Council for Justice and Peace, who opposes executing Saddam on the grounds that "every life is sacred". This is a curious innovation in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, which has always supported capital punishment and indeed often caused it to be carried out by the secular authorities. One suspects the change in the party line was made because it was necessary to back up the hard line being taken on abortion. Defending the right to life of blastocysts does not sit well with the traditional Roman Catholic support for capital punishment.

Yet the Roman Catholic church's current official position is the same as the one that I have argued here, namely, given that modern societies are able adequately to punish criminals without depriving them of their lives, the death penalty is unnecessary - except in the most extreme circumstances. But this is a most extreme circumstance, about as extreme as you are ever going to get, and Iraq is not a society in which modern alternatives are possible.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, the first and only integrated historical account of capital punishment in Britain for both murder and military offences, and of many articles discussing the situation in other countries including "The British State and the Power of Life and Death" in Simon Green and Richard Whiting (eds.), The Boundaries of the State in Modern Britain (Cambridge U.P. 1996, pp 339-72).


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Iraqis may well feel insulted at being lectured at in this arrogant way by the French as if they were some kind of backward Third World savages.

French values are extraordinarily twisted. Syphilis wreaks its havoc by attacking the brain, but such behaviour by the French suggests that in that country there is an epidemic of some kind of STD that goes directly for the mind.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at November 16, 2006 07:05 PM
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