There are many, myself included, who generally oppose capital punishment because, in our current legal system, race and economic class disproportionately determine the rate of death sentences in this country. This is particularly chilling when evidence later exonerates a defendant. One cannot correct such an error once a death sentence is carried out, which is why our rabbinic sages were so loathe to enact it. That is different than the trial of an individual guilty of genocidal acts.
What troubled me about the death sentence in Saddam Hussein’s case was that the appeal decision to hang him was based on his killing a few hundred rather than the multitudes he murdered.
The real shame of the matter, though, and what makes so many of us uncomfortable, was the way his death was handled. His abuse at the gallows by his Shiite guards serves to fan the flames of continued sectarian violence in Iraq. This is what Thomas Friedman was so accurately referring to as a tribal revenge ritual.
There has been some chatter comparing Hussein’s death to that of another war criminal, the architect of Hitler’s Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann. Both men deserved to be executed for their crimes. However, Rabbi Jack Riemer points out that the way in which both were executed was completely different.
Israel appointed Jewish guards for Eichmann from Yemen and other Arab countries, realizing that he would be safe from abuse in their hands rather than in the hands of European Jews whose families Eichmann had been responsible for torturing and murdering. After Eichmann was executed, his body was cremated and his ashes scattered in the sea so his grave could neither be defaced nor become a pilgrimage site for supporters.
That is the difference between a civilized society that respects the honor due every human being as a child of the same God (i.e. Israel), even that of a murderer with the blood of six million souls on his hands, and a chaotic one that does not (i.e. Iraq). That difference makes me proud to be a Jew and terrified of what will ultimately become of the Pandora’s box President Bush has opened in Iraq.
–Posted by Rabbi Susan Grossman