Notes on an Execution
A friend who knows I don’t support the death penalty asked me how I felt about Saddam Hussein’s execution (and no, Saddam is not in their league).
The classic question: can we change the hypothetical enough to reverse your policy?
Saddam ranked high among the ne’er do wells of the world – not so high on the all-time rankings, but high enough. He was executed for the retaliatory murders of more than 150 people. Most suspect he was directly or indirectly involved in the deaths of many, many more.
So the question is really a variation on the “what about Hitler?” or “what about Stalin?” question that is often put to opponents of capital punishment.
My answer may not surprise, but I feel that Saddam’s execution advanced very little and may actually lead to declines.
The world is not safer.
Tyrants and dictators will not be less likely to torture and kill their citizens.
Those who grieve will still feel the void of a love one gone too soon.
Questions remain about the quality of his criminal trial.
He is, within some communities and ethnic groups, remembered as a martyr.
He was executed for the retaliatory killing of 150; before he could stand trial for the killings of more than 100,000 Kurds.
And, on top of it all, even with all the media attention, it all kind of came and went with very little sound and even less fury and… as a result…seemed to signified nothing. In fact, if there is a lasting legacy from the execution, it is a legacy of a botched hanging.
Saddam, a Sunni, was hanged by Shias. They mocked him. They asked God to damn him. They shouted “Moktada” over and over. Saddam asked if they felt like men, he lost his temper. And in the end, the trap door was sprung in the middle of a prayer. It all happened on the first day of high holy days. The Sunnis start the celebration on one day (that’s when Saddam was hanged). The Shias start celebrating the next. Not the best day to hang the man.
One aspect of Saddam’s execution fascinates me quite a lot. The fact that the execution can be seen on the world wide web*. Some attendee recorded it with a cell phone video camera and posted it for all to see. I wish someone had done the same at the recently botched Florida execution.
I think executions should be televised in America too. And I won’t hide the trick. My ultimate goal is to build the case against capital punishment. It’s too easy for proponents to support it – to override all the concerns about inadequate counsel and bias and cruelty and execution of the young and the mentally ill and those who are below average in intelligence. Let’s expose this heinous practice for what it really is – one significant part of our national hypocrisy and our national shame.
And yes, some people will cheer – just as people cheered and jeered Saddam. But the majority of people, people of maturity, reasonable people, will react differently.
Proponents of the death penalty, in order to salvage its constitutionality, must prove that it is neither cruel nor unusual (and, of course, this is the biggest indictment on the state of affairs in our country – our highest courts crafted an argument to essentially say that killing a person by lethal injection or by gas or by electrocution is not cruel AND most of all, not unusual). And if executions are neither cruel nor unusual, then they ought to be televised. Plenty of cruel stuff is on TV. Plenty of unusual stuff is on TV.
And, every other aspect of criminal justice takes place in broad daylight. Our courts are (relatively) open. Trials, judgments, sentencing, and even prison life can be seen on television. In some ways these phases are glorified, but for the most part they’re not.
So, if executions are not cruel or unusual, if they’re meant to deter, if we’re administering justice, then why not show it?
I really only have three reservations: first, steps must be taken to prevent children from seeing executions.
Second, the executed must consent – but I’d think a lot of them would consent.
Third, it may actually backfire. It may actually create a sensation and not only increase support for this barbaric practice, but also heighten my despair at the state of our union.
*I haven’t seen it myself. I don’t know if I will.