A few months ago, when asked what I thought about Saddam Hussein facing the death penalty, I said “I’m against the death penalty, but I’m not going to cry over this one.” Now, with Saddam’s hanging imminent, I have taken a different position.
I am against the death penalty for Saddam Hussein, and I will be disturbed when it is carried out. It is not a question of sympathy for the man – I feel none. Nor is it a matter of the standard anti-death penalty boilerplate.
There is another reason. I am against it because it will cause other people to die.
Iraq is very unstable. It is immersed in a foreign occupation wrapped in a complex three-dimensional civil war. Lines of division are slashed all over the place – Sunnis versus Shiites, Ba’ath party supporters versus reformists, pro-Americans versus anti-Americans. The battles rage daily, with kidnappings, murders, bombings, and shootings happening all over. But on the day Saddam hangs, some of those attacks will be in retaliation for, or simply protests against, the execution.
People will die. People will die specifically because Saddam was hanged. In a country where people are killed every day, for various reasons or for no reason at all, it is easy to simply shrug your shoulders and say “people are dying anyway, so what difference does it make?”
But if that were your mother, or your cousin, or your daughter laying in the morgue, and you knew that he or she died specifically because of the outburst that followed Saddam’s hanging – that he or she would still be alive if he had not been executed – how would you feel?
Thousands of people have died in Iraq since the invasion of 2003 – many more than would have died under Saddam’s brutal regime if the war had not happened (Sources: Blix, Blum, Annan). Those might just seem like numbers, and the images we see on television just more digital carnage, one war blending into another, the news blending into entertainment. But every one of those deaths is personal to someone. We should never forget that. And when they hang Saddam, there will be more deaths, many immediately attributable to the execution. The blame for those deaths will not fall on Saddam, but on Saddam’s executioners.