Saddam Got What He Deserved

Editor's Note: Father Jonathan will discuss Pat Robertson's recent predictions of "mass killings" in America in 2007 on Thursday at 2:50pm ET.

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Saddam Hussein got what he deserved.

But, like many others of my generation of similar social upbringing, my view of the death penalty has evolved over time.

In my formative years, my parents were red-blooded Republicans. Dad was a lawyer, and he was tough on crime, not because he was mean-spirited, but rather because he believed justice served the common good of society and each of its members, including, in the long term, the criminal himself.

Capital punishment was part and parcel of the conservative gig.

Few Republicans, however, touted or defended their pro-death penalty position as a product of nuanced ethical reflection. Looking back, I see that the hard line position of conservatives of my parents’ generation was in many cases a reaction against the spirit of blatant indifference and appeasement of many outspoken social liberals of the time.

The case of the execution of Saddam Hussein allows the perfect opportunity for just such missing, nuanced reflection.

To begin, we must lay down some basic framework. Anyone with the gall to say Saddam Hussein did not deserve to die can’t be part of this discussion. It would be a clear sign they have no respect for historic truth. Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, a sadist, and a cold-blooded murderer.

Sadly, today it may be necessary to clarify another point before going on. Human life, because of its inherent and indestructible dignity, is of inestimable value.

The question still at hand, then, and worthy of our debate, is whether anyone or any institution has the moral right to extinguish another human life as payment for wrongdoing.

A government’s responsibility is to seek the common good of its people. When a crime is committed under its watch, the competent authority must respond, not only to protect its citizens from further ill, but also to contribute to a reestablishment of relative moral balance within the community. That’s called justice.

Justice demands proportion in the dishing out of punishment. That’s because tax fraud, for example, generally tilts the scales of justice to a lesser degree than does child abuse or homicide.

So how can you serve out justice — with all its due proportion — to someone like Saddam?

The simple answer is that you can’t.

The execution of Saddam Hussein cannot restore the relative moral balance of the Iraqi community. After all his years of brutal dictatorship, the scales of justice are so out of whack, it will take many generations of honest governments to make things almost right again.

Some would argue, then, that when it comes to punishing Saddam Hussein, the logic should be ‘the more punishment the better’, even if justice is not fully restored.

That logic sounds almost right, but I think it’s flawed. Saddam Hussein’s evil actions don’t give us a free pass to do with him whatever we want. Because human life, all human life, is of inestimable value, we can’t trade it in for anything else — a little bit of revenge, for example — and think the accompanying emotional payback is well deserved.

This being said, there are circumstances when it is acceptable, and at times even morally obligatory, to take the life of someone else. We call it self-defense or the defense of the innocent. If we are attacked, we can always respond in clear conscience with the necessary force to stop the aggressor, even if, tragically, that requires killing.

It is in this light that I think it is fair to say that in extreme circumstances a government has the moral right to execute a convicted criminal if it is the only way to defend its people from a grave and imminent threat. It should however, always prefer and look for all possible ‘bloodless methods’, meaning non-violent solutions, like life-imprisonment in a foreign land.

I highly doubt the Iraqi government took the above factors into consideration before slinging the noose around Saddam’s neck. If they had, they still may have decided that while nobody is justified in taking human life as payment for wrongdoing, execution would be the only way to protect its people against a dangerous man, given the absolute chaos which grips the country. Or maybe they did think it through in these terms. Perhaps they were looking into a near future without the presence of American soldiers to provide a semblance of security, and feared the probable release and return to power of Mr. Hussein.

Whatever they were thinking, Saddam is now dead and he certainly deserved what he got. Just as certain, in my opinion, is the tragedy of taking another human life, even an evil one like Saddam’s.

Here’s the clincher: whether the tragedy of Saddam Hussein’s execution was necessary to defend the Iraqi people, is a moral question that rests on the conscience of the Iraqi government, the only institution with the necessary information and competent authority to make such a weighty decision.

God bless, Father Jonathan

P.S. Many of you responded to my column about New Year’s Resolutions. I hope to post some of your responses on Friday. They were great! Thank you!

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