A guest post from Josh Trevino:
I am against the death penalty. The only left-wing advocacy event I have ever attended, in fact, was a 2001 anti-death penalty rally in Greenwich Village featuring Sister Helen Prejean. In this, I depart from my fellow-travelers in conservatism, the great majority of whom are very much in favor of the lawful killing of the murderous and the depraved in society. It is difficult to gainsay them in this: the people whom they wish to kill are, in theory, the right people to kill. Opposition to their position has a regrettable tendency to transform into a defense of the indefensible. Witness, for example, the ridiculous fetishization of the late Stanley “Tookie” Williams — a disgusting charlatan who emerged from a life of killing and mayhem to a transformation into a jailhouse saint. In opposing the right of the state to execute, one must avoid the temptation to assume that the objects of one’s defense are good. They are generally not. (An exception here are the uncounted numbers of erroneously-convicted — and erroneously-executed — whose existence is a major factor in my unwillingness to credit the state with this power.) They are by and large the worst among us, whose bestial crimes and inhuman horrors transgress our moral bounds, even in an age where those bounds are indistinct and increasingly stretched.
It is easy for the opponent of the death penalty to rationalize the sparing of the “ordinary” criminal. The sociopath who kills a stranger is, for all the profundity of his act, nonetheless a localized evil. Endless incarceration removes him and the macro-scale reverberations of his crime from the lives and, presumably, the memories of the law-abiding citizenry. Obviously those who loved the victim may feel differently: I do not minimize their suffering here, but I do note that it is uniquely theirs, and as such not necessarily a concern of the polity at large. In America, our criminal law as inherited from England — and specifically embodied in the concept of the “King’s peace” — is not meant to provide direct recompense to a victim, or an indirect victim, by means of the suffering of the criminal. Those victims must draw whatever solace they may from the state’s punishment, as inflicted on the state’s behalf. Pace Michael Dukakis, would I feel differently if, say, my wife were subjected to outrage and death? Of course: that is the human condition, and that is why we disallow direct personal vengeance in favor of a system of law. Thus, though it is easy to defend a policy of life in peacetime, if done without acknowledgment of, and compassion for, the anguish of those hurt by the criminal, it is reduced to mere moral posturing: an exercise in self-righteousness done not for the sake of justice, but for the sake of oneself. That is the calculation, attendant to the fate of the “ordinary” criminal.
And then there is Saddam Hussein.
The terrors of the dictator need no in-depth recapitulation here. Saddam Hussein killed strangers, friends, and family throughout his bloody career. He was a bloodthirsty paranoiac in the Stalinist mold, and in his prime, he held sway over millions — and slew a few hundred thousand of them. Unlike our hypothetical “ordinary” criminal, he was no localized evil. He was, rather, a grand evil on the world-historical scale — a menace-in-being akin to a Hitler, a Stalin, or a Napoleon, and separated from their immensity only by the fortune of the comparatively pitiful nation into which he was born. And he is about to die.
It must be admitted that the killing of Saddam Huseein is a confounding event for an opponent of the death penalty like me. The ranks of those wholly meriting the final moments of agony, the fear of eternal horror, and the dread of God’s justice are — with respect to my Calvinist friends! — small, but he is assuredly among them. There can be no sympathy for him as he struggles his last at the end of a rope: indeed, he will even then be in sublime comfort set against the twisting agony of the Kurdish children he gassed. There can be no regret for his lost potential, as he fully expressed it in his creation of a hideous police-state that consumed its children and ravaged its land. Nor can be sorrow for his circumstance, as he was master of his fate in his long decades of absolute power — the only free man in Iraq — and used his freedom to choose death and misery in full. The thing that will be done to him — his execution — is intrinsically wrong. But the things that he will feel as a result, in those final moments and beyond, will be right. Most victims of the gallows may be said to earn their fates: Saddam Hussein may be said to have chosen it.
The expectations and hopes that the likes of the old dictator would spend his life descending into madness in a dank cell were never realistic. Iraqi society is, to be charitable, primitive in many respects; and the idea that law and justice are not functions of personal vengeance finds small purchase there. In that light, we may regret that the state we created there is executing its criminals: but we may also be grateful that in this case, it was done with the veneer of legality — for form may become substance in time — and that it was done to the most deserving of men. For our own sakes, we hope for a merciful God, who will forgive even the worst among us. For Saddam Hussein’s sake, we hope for a just God, whose face he never sees, obscured as it is by the visages of his countless victims.