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God's Politics

When Saddam Hussein and his aides Awad Hamed al-Bandar and Barzan Ibrahim were hanged, many were upset that the killings were not done with “dignity.” They thought it unseemly and improper that some present at the execution hurled insults and taunted Hussein, or that his half-brother Ibrahim was decapitated in the process.

That’s like talking about icing without talking about the cake.

Here’s the cake: rendering Hussein or any human being defenseless and killing him. Imposing a violent death on a person is the greatest indignity of all; it makes name-calling or taunts pale in significance.

Can a state killing ever be done with dignity? This question was at the heart of my dialogue with Pope John Paul II in January 1997. I informed him of the U.S. Supreme Court statement in Furman v. Georgia, which claimed that executing human beings is not “inconsistent with our respect for the dignity of men.” And I told him how in accompanying the condemned to their deaths, most asked me to “pray that God holds up my legs.”

“How can one possibly subject human beings to torture and to death and yet respect their dignity?” I asked.

The pope responded publicly when he visited St. Louis in 1999 and said: “A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” He then renewed his call for the abolition of the death penalty, which, he said, “is both cruel and unnecessary.”

Even for Saddam Hussein.

The response to Hussein’s execution from Vatican officials has been unequivocal in their condemnation. “There is no doubt,” said Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, “that Saddam was a ruthless dictator responsible for hundreds of deaths. But one does not compensate for one crime with another crime. The church proclaims that human life is to be protected from conception to natural death. The death penalty is not a natural death.” Cardinal Martino said it was not morally licit for anyone, “not even the state,” to kill another person.

Hussein’s hanging was “tragic news,” said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi. He went on to say: “This is a reason for sadness even if this is about a person who is guilty of serious crimes. The position of the Catholic church, which is against the death penalty whatever the circumstances, needs to be repeated again: There is a risk that [the hanging] feeds the spirit of vengeance and plants the seeds for fresh violence.”

Since 9/11, we have seen time and again the operation of this cycle of vengeance and violence. When will we ever learn?

Sister Helen Prejean is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille and a prominent anti-death penalty advocate whose work was featured in the film Dead Man Walking. Her most recent book is The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.

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