Thursday, December 28, 2006

If you've been watching the news, you no doubt know that (surprise!) Saddam Hussein's death sentence has been upheld by the Iraqi courts, and he's supposed to go to the gallows sometime in the next 30 days. To his apologists and supporters, it's an example of victors' justice; to the victims of his long reign of terror, it's what he deserves.

Or is it?

How do you make the punishment fit the crime when the crime is so monstrous as to defy comprehension? How many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were tortured or murdered during Mr Hussein's rule? How many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Iraqis and Iranians lost their lives during the 10-year war touched off by Mr Hussein's invasion of Iran? What if Adolf Hitler had been captured before he could commit suicide at the end of World War II...what punishment could begin to fit the enormity of the Holocaust? What if Josef Stalin had had to pay for the tens of millions of Soviet citizens who died in his purges? Or Idi Amin in Uganda? Or Pol Pot in Cambodia? How do you punish unthinkable crimes?

I believe in capital punishment, but sometimes I have to think that the death penalty, however it is carried out, can't begin to provide enough punishment for some crimes. If there's a fate worse than death, what is it?

Stanley Crouch, writing in the New York Daily News this morning, suggested that Mr Hussein was "beyond execution," and that "letting (him) rot in jail is the best penalty." Mr Crouch writes that perhaps the worst punishment for a previously omnipotent leader is lifelong solitary confinement with a bland diet and minimum daily exercise outside of his tiny, bare cell. I think there's a lot to be said for such a punishment. As Mr Crouch writes, "If we smile when thinking of the rabid monster wasting away for the rest of his life, that's about as close as any of us will get to a feeling of satisfied revenge."

Joseph Heywood's excellent 1987 thriller The Berkut explores the theme of revenge against a monstrous criminal, in this case Adolf Hitler. You'll be shocked at the ending. And I remember reading a short story many years ago about the punishment of a particularly vile murderer in a futuristic society. Each year, the man was hung, then rushed to a hospital and revived, his broken neck was repaired, and he was rehabilitated in a prison hospital, until the following year, when he would again be hung and the drama would begin anew.

How should we punish truly evil men for truly monstrous crimes? Is death appropriate? Is it too good for some crimes? What's worse? What is fair to victims and their families?

From a purely philosophical and religious standpoint, I don't know how to answer these questions. But I believe history clearly shows that there are some criminals who are beyond redemption and utterly undeserving of mercy. They deserve a full and fair trial, and they deserve whatever punishment results, if indeed punishment is decreed.

So what do we do with Saddam Hussein? I guess ultimately it's up to the Iraqis, and they have decreed death by hanging. So be it.

But I like Mr Crouch's idea better.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


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