Death or life?

What is the appropriate penalty for Saddam Hussein?

I am an opponent of the death penalty and have been for over twenty years. My reasoning has shifted over the years, but today I would stand by two reasons: one objection of principle and one that is pragmatic.

The pragmatic objection is to a general application of the death penalty. No legal system is perfect, and it is inevitable that a few innocent people will be convicted. It is impossible to devise a foolproof way around this problem, but clearly the objection is irrelevant. Saddam is certainly guilty and there can be little doubt that he deserves the death penalty.

The objection of principle is the Randian one. The state - like any collective organisation - has no rights. Individuals have rights and can delegate them. Individuals have the right to self-defence which incorporates the right to kill or disble people, under restricted circumstances, who are directly threatening violence. It is perfectly acceptable to kill someone who is in the process of committing a crime, if it is the best way of preventing the crime, and the violence used in self-defence is proportional to the crime being prevented. This right can be delegated to the state. But once someone has been restrained, and is no longer a threat, an individual does not have the right to kill someone, and so cannot delegate that right to the state.

But is it possible that there are few exceptions to this reasoning. Even the most psychopathic or cruel serial killer does not threaten people once in prison. Political leaders do. As a martyr, Saddam would be a focus for the tiny number of baath loyalists, but as a prisoner he would be a focus for attacks on the prison to break him out. In a twenty year prison sentence it is a certainty that dozens would die in fending off attempts to break him out, if indeed all the attempts were fended off. Rudolf Hess, a rather minor figure in the third Reich was a hero to neo-nazis for decades. How many would have died to keep Hitler alive in Spandau?

And the risk that Saddam would indeed escape would always be there. An escape could come close to triggering a civil war. His execution, by contrast, though certainly a focus for terrorism and violence, would at least end his own role in affairs. The pronouncement of a life sentence would have provoked a response just as violent as anything that will arise from the death penalty, and would have been followed by decades of plots to break him out.

Israel has executed exactly one convict: Adolf Eichmann. It is difficult to argue with that highly selective use of the death penalty, even for an ardent opponent such as I. And just as difficult to argue that Saddam is in a different category.

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