I think a lot about capital punishment, but I still haven’t figured out what to think about the (apparently completed) execution of Sadaam Hussein. Although I am deeply troubled by the use of capital punishment in the United States, and have questions whether any system can consistently offer the assurances of fairness and accuracy commensurate with the sanction, I do not oppose the death penalty categorically. If the death penalty is appropriate, it seems to me that one must feel confident that the target is actually guilty, that he received a fair trial, and that he is culpable at the highest moral and practical level for the most serious crimes. When it comes to Sadaam, there is little doubt (as far as I can tell) that he is guilty of facilitiating mass killings. I don’t know whether he received a fair trial and I don’t know enough about him personally to know whether he is morally culpable on an individual level – although he doesn’t appear to have much claim to most of the mitigators surfacing in a typical U.S. capital sentencing. At the end of the day, I don’t have much sympathy for the guy.
So should I care if he is executed? Perhaps I should not only care, but be pleased. On some level, this sentence – which unlike most death sentences in the U.S., will actually be noticed both by the people we hope to reassure and those we hope to deter – communicates a fair amount about society’s view of his conduct. In that sense, this outcome is probably better than having troops kill him while he was huddled in a bunker. And it is surely better for the U.S. that he be executed after an Iraqi trial, and by Iraqis, rather than through a U.S. military tribunal.
Maybe I shouldn’t care, even if the penalty is wrong because these sanctions aren’t ours to distribute. But that can’t be quite right, since the current Iraqi regime is (at least partially) an American creation. And if the death penalty is unjustifiable murder, if I truly believed that to be true in all cases, I would have to be upset and angry, and probably feel compelled to take at least some small action in opposition.
I can’t quite get to the bottom of my own emotions. The process seems like slow motion, a bit, though it is far faster than any American death penalty. (Isn’t that oxymoronic? The American process is so slow that it doesn’t even look like motion. In the end, the execution feels little different from a premeditated killing precisely because it is not part of a continuing, visible, inevitable process that leads directly to execution. Here, however, the process is swift enough that we can watch it unfold slowly before our eyes.) I fear that it will have negative political repercussions. I fear that it will reopen wounds that should stay closed, or close wounds that demand further inspection and investigation. I fear that the comfortable use of death in this case will reassure some people that the death penalty is appropriate for more mundane crimes.
But I don’t feel much pity. And I don’t feel a sense of injustice. So in some awful sense, I don’t care much at all. And there’s the rub. I deeply dislike the idea that the intentional killing of another human being would not generate deep discomfort in me. I seem to have found out why I don’t oppose the death penalty categorically. But I’m not sure I’m proud of the insight.