Saddam Hussein’s Execution
With the media focused on the execution of Saddam Hussein, now is as good a time as any to re-read and reflect on what the Catechism has to say about the death penalty:
Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and
responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the
Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only
possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, nonlethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s
safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these
are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more
in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for
effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense
incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the
possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the
offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.
In keeping with the treatment of war within the Catechism, the magisterium seems to
view the death penalty as a subspecies of killing in self-defense. That is, the hierarchy’s position appears to be that the death penalty is appropriate only as a means to definitively prevent a criminal from committing future violent acts.
A story could be told in which Hussein’s execution was justifiable. There’s obviously little doubt that he committed the crimes for which he was ultimately executed. (Note that I don’t think admitting as much commits one in any way to the justice of Bush’s war in Iraq. There’s little point denying that Hussein was a thug and a tyrant.) Also justifying his execution would be the possibility that, if he had not been killed, Hussein might one day have escaped from confinement, or been released by some future Iraqi government, regained power and reimposed his murderous regime. This possibility seems to me to be remote, but its improbability is mitigated by the chaos that currently reigns in Iraq and, in light of the atrocities he committed while in power, by the scope of the harm he might have caused had it come to pass.
One thing that I think cannot legitimately be used to jusitfy his execution, at least on my reading of the magisterium’s statements in this area, is the encouragement his continued existence would have had on the Iraqi insurgency. According to the Catechism, “[p]unishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by
the offense.” What this restitutionary, or, perhaps, restorative, orientation seems to rule out is the use of punishment primarily in order to influence the behavior of third parties, a use that would reduce the person punished to a mere means to an end. Accordingly, assuming that Hussein could be safely confined for the remainder of his natural life, the fact that his death might discourage acts of violence by his supporters in the Iraqi insurgency could not have been used to justify his execution. If this desire to take the wind out of the insurgency’s sails (or perhaps a less narrowly tailored desire to demonstrate its power — again with a similar eye towards weakening the insurgency) is what motivated the Iraqi government to execute Saddam Hussein so quickly, then the execution was not justified.
On the role of our own government in all of this, Josh Marshall has this to say:
The Iraq War has been many things, but for its prime promoters and
cheerleaders and now-dwindling body of defenders, the war and all its
ideological and literary trappings have always been an exercise in
moral-historical dress-up for a crew of folks whose times aren’t grand
enough to live up to their own self-regard and whose imaginations are
great enough to make up the difference. This is just more play-acting.
These jokers are being dragged kicking and screaming to the
realization that the whole thing’s a mess and that they’re going to be
remembered for it — defined by it — for decades and
centuries. But before we go, we can hang Saddam. Quite a bit of this
was about the president’s issues with his dad and the hang-ups he had
about finishing Saddam off — so before we go, we can hang the guy as
some big cosmic ‘So There!’
It goes without saying that if Josh’s reading of this is correct — that this execution was directed by Washington and is just the last gasp of the President’s Iraq fiasco, a reading that strikes me as certainly a reasonable one in light of the circumstances — then the execution falls far short of the standards set forth by the Catechism on any number of levels.