Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Higher Justice

Saddam's execution has been an occasion for hand-wringing, by some who are opposed to the death penalty on principle, and others who point to the lack of due process in Saddam's trial and execution, and furthermore, the squalidness and brutality of the latter. Broadly I am in favor of capital punishment, although I respect the opposition; and I acknowledge the considerable shortcomings of official Iraqi justice. However, I am struck by what seems to be the effeteness of these protests of Saddam's fate.

My view is the precision with which such an end suits Saddam is justice. Poetic justice, to be sure, in the shabby vengeance meted out to him by a Shiite death squad, born from a population he satanically abused; and also what seems like a higher justice, although I may be indulging myself here. Catholic theologians considering the death penalty have written about its being used in rare cases to reestablish the "right order of things". I'm not sure if they had this in mind. They make a distinction between "just retribution" and "reprehensible vindictiveness" that I don't understand, and fear I'm on the wrong side of. I wonder: aren't there some criminals who necessitate the kind of punishment given to Saddam, and might not vindictiveness play a key role in it?

I'm also torn between my perceptions of Western and Iraqi society. The Iraqi people were subject to 24 years of totalitarian nightmare by Saddam, something I still think we don't -- and can't -- properly appreciate. I understand one of the basic premises of occupying Iraq was remolding its society into something remotely after our own image. But how dare we tell them what to do with Saddam? I think it's right that we handed him over to Maliki, however banal or hastily considered were the Bush Administration's reasons for doing so. We would be obstructing higher justice by interfering. If the Iraqis wanted truth and reconciliation, then great, we should have been on board with that. But Baghdad isn't Nuremberg. People scoff at WWII comparisons deployed to justify the idea of invading Iraq, but now the Nuremberg comparison is in vogue. It doesn't seem right.

Western society is liberal-democratic, and as such, it is fundamentally rationalist. Instead of recognizing the fundamental irrationality of the political psychology that gives rise to phenomena like Baathism, Islamofascism and their precursors, we search for rational reasons why these movements happen. It must be the Versailles Treaty, or US bombing in Cambodia, or the Israeli occupation, that drives people mad. The flip side of this is the notion that punishment must serve some narrow, rational end. Punishment is about rehabilitation, not retribution, and in cases where rehabilitation is not feasible, retribution must not take the form of capital punishment.

I can't accept that. It's not good enough for someone like Saddam. It doesn't address the nature of what he did. It doesn't restore the "right order of things". Saddam existed in a realm beyond which rationalism can triumph. Iraqi society did not want to be Western with respect to Saddam. It could not have been. We were right not to force it to.

Update: I agree with Jeff Weintraub that David Hirst's summary of Saddam's career is superb.

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