Beliefnet
God's Politics

In the alarming video of the execution of Saddam Hussein that has traveled around the world, we have looked into the darkness of the Iraqi soul these days. Saddam’s crimes are certainly deserving of both revelation and punishment, but his execution turned into an abusive and offensive sectarian killing like what is happening every day in an Iraq overcome by tribal violence. Even in the punishment of Iraq’s greatest criminal, justice was put aside in favor of revenge.

The extreme example of Saddam’s botched execution reveals the problem with capital punishment more generally. Justice does require punishment, but what message does the state killing to punish killing finally send? Isn’t capital punishment always more about revenge than justice? And wouldn’t it be a more fitting punishment for the Timothy McVeighs and the Saddam Husseins to be stripped of all their wealth and power, forgotten in the public memory, and subjected to menial and meaningless manual labor, in obscurity, for the rest of their lives?

Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator and a mass murderer, for whom few will mourn. But he was no longer a threat in prison. Why stoop to his level and kill him as he so ruthlessly killed others? And the degrading spectacle that his execution became should revolt all of us. The mocking and taunting of Saddam on the cell-phone video will likely only further fuel the sectarian civil war already raging in Iraq. Even in death, he causes more trouble. Why was he given that opportunity?

Religious leaders have condemned the execution. The Vatican repeated its commitment to a consistent ethic of life, as Fr. Federico Lombardi S.J., Director of the Holy See Press Office, issued a statement titled “Tragic News,” saying: “”The execution of a capital sentence is always tragic news, a cause of sadness, even when the person is guilty of terrible crimes. The position of the Catholic Church against the death penalty has often been reiterated. The killing of the guilty is not the way to rebuild justice and reconcile society, rather there is a risk of nourishing the spirit of revenge and inciting fresh violence.”

In an interview on BBC the day before the execution, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was asked whether he thought Hussein should be executed. He replied, “I’m not a believer in the death penalty as a general principle. … I think that Saddam Hussein is manifestly someone who has committed grave crimes against his own people and grave breaches of international law. I think he deserves punishment, and sharp and unequivocal punishment; I don’t think that he should be at liberty, but I would say of him what I have to say about anyone who’s committed even the most appalling crimes in this country; that I believe the death penalty effectively says ‘there is no room for change or repentance’.”

Saddam Hussein, like other murderers before him, was a violent and remorseless man. But by taking his life, we sink to his level. If we truly believe that all human life is created in God’s image, then no matter how distorted that life may become, we do not have the right to take it. We simply should not kill to show we are against killing. It is indeed to prefer revenge over justice.

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