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January 03, 2007

Saddam Hussein's execution and EU Commissioner Louis Michel: Theodore Dalrymple on how M. Michel has shown himself to be uniquely qualified to be a ruler in today's Europe

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple finds that EU Commissioner Louis Michel has - through his pronouncements on Saddam Hussein's execution - shown himself to be uniquely well qualified to be a ruler in today's Europe.

Though I am by no means sentimental, the footage of the last moments of the late dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, moved me to pity. To see a fully conscious man a few moments before he is done to death, who knows that he will be dead in less than a minute's time, should not excite any other emotion.

There was more. If we had seen the moving pictures without knowing who the participants in the scene were, we should have concluded that thugs, dressed in woollen helmets, were hanging a respectable and dignified man clandestinely, in a thoroughly criminal fashion. And no doubt this is how the pictures will be understood in much, or some, of the Arab world.

Of course, one does not have to know much about Saddam for the pity to evaporate pretty quickly. He was a strictly hands-on dictator - hand on the trigger, that is. The death of others was always his route to power, and his means of maintaining himself in power. He did not mind, and seemed to like, killing by his own hand: to that extent, he could be said to have had the courage of his brutality. Whatever one's view of the situation in Iraq, and however it was brought about, one should not waste too much, that is to say any, sympathy on this man.

I was, however, irritated by the unctuously self-righteous statements of European leaders after Saddam was executed. They though it was the moment to demonstrate their opposition to the death penalty, as a sign of their superior moral development. The statement that particularly caught my eye was that of Louis Michel, the European commissioner for aid, as reported in the Sunday Telegraph.

This official delivered himself of the following sentiment (and I apologise to him in advance if his remarks were in some way misrepresented):

You don't fight barbarism with acts that I deem as barbaric. The death penalty is not compatible with democracy.
Perhaps it is unfair to place too much weight on what, after all, must have been an offhand comment: but he who lives by the soundbite dies by the soundbite. Besides, there is something to be said for the idea that unguarded comments are a better guide to innermost thoughts than more considered ones.

First let us notice the exaggerated importance M. Michel (a former Belgian foreign minister now put out to grass in that great fertile field for defunct politicians who either have lost - or not longer wish to fight - elections, the EU) ascribes to himself. That is barbaric what M. Michel considers so; it appears to be a fact that barbarism can be confronted only by the means that M. Michel considers not barbaric. He is indeed a very important moral arbiter. It would, I suppose, be a cheap shot to suggest that he turned his attention to his own country, which is not universally acknowledged as a land of iron rectitude.

It is curious, or perhaps ironic, that an unelected official, for an organisation that is universally acknowledged to have a profound democratic deficit, should pronounce on matters of what is, and what is not, compatible with democracy. His own very lucrative post, for example, is not compatible with democracy, at least in its present form.

Let us now examine the claim that the death penalty is not compatible with democracy. This claim yields some rather unexpected results. It means that neither of the two most important and populous so-called democracies in world, the United States and India, are in fact democracies. Moreover, other well-known democracies came to this form of government rather late in the day: Britain in 1965, and France in 1981, when the death penalty was abolished. What form of government, one wonders, did they have until then?

As far as Britain is concerned, it would be more true (though not absolutely true) to say that democracy is impossible without the death penalty: for a larger majority have been in favour of it than have been in favour of any particular government for at least half a century.

Now of course, in no workable system of government, outside a parish or possibly a city state, is it possible for everything important to be decided upon by canvassing the opinion of the population, and doing exactly what the majority wants. For all I know, the majority would want public executions back (so much more vivid than soap operas), but I do not think a government should automatically bow before such a demand.

But when the subject of the death penalty and its relation to democracy comes up, only a European official could fail to mention that most people are in fact in favour of it. It turns out that M. Michel is the arbiter of democracy at least as much as he is the arbiter of barbarism. He is therefore a very important man.

As to the question of capital punishment itself, there is much to be said on both sides. One's response, I suppose, is governed by whether, by temperament, one finds the occasional judicial error worse than the murders committed by people who have already killed (139 of them at least since the abolition of the death penalty in Britain). Those who are outraged by the hanging of Timothy Evans are not equally outraged by the recent case of the man who, having fatally bashed in the skull of a woman so that she had seven fractures, was released after three and a half years' imprisonment and then set fire to his 16 year-old girlfriend's house, killing another four people, thus - in his single person - equalling the tally of known wrongful executions for the last sixty years of the death penalty.

Whatever one's view of the death penalty, whether one takes a deontological position either for it or against it, whether one views it in purely utilitarian terms, and believes it to be effective or ineffective, M. Michel's remarks were the product of arrogance, stupidity or ignorance, or all three. That is to say, he is uniquely qualified to be a ruler in today's Europe.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor.


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"M. Michel's remarks were the product of arrogance, stupidity or ignorance, or all three. That is to say, he is uniquely qualified to be a ruler in today's Europe."

Quite so.

An honest man in his position, holding his beliefs, would have said, "We should realize that most ordinary people in the West, as well as elsewhere, believe in the death penalty. Consequently, it is just as well that we do not, in fact, have democracy in much of Europe; or that, insofar as we do have it, it is tempered by other arrangements."

If M. Michel had said something like that, I could have respected his view, even though I do, in fact, believe that Saddam got what he deserved and a lesser sentence would not have been just. As it is, I've nothing but contempt for Michel. He is not an honest man.

The _Federalist Papers_ is very much concerned with the problem of controlling majorities. But Hamilton, Madison, and Jay were honest men and said what they thought - besides being intellectually head-and-shoulders above Michel. He gestures towards majority opinion when he actually despises it.

Posted by: Nick at January 3, 2007 05:31 PM
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