Politics & Policy

Just Tragic?

The justice in Saddam Hussein's execution.

Editor’s note: Saddam Hussein was executed on Saturday morning in Iraq, by Iraq. Was that an execution of justice? Or was it, as a Vatican spokesman calls it, “tragic”? National Review Online asked a group of Catholic thinkers to weigh in.

Fr. Thomas Berg, L.C.

The standing Catholic doctrine on the death penalty is found in the encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), number 56. The encyclical places the rationale for application of the death penalty within the framework of legitimate self-defense. It points out that in inflicting punishment to redress the disorder caused by an offender, “the nature and extent of the punishment … ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” The same number makes three crucial observations: a) the Church’s growing tendency is to demand that the death penalty be applied in a very limited way or abolished altogether; b) cases of absolute necessity are rare to nonexistent; and c) the Church’s traditional teaching nonetheless permits recourse to the death penalty if this is judged to be the only reasonable way to defend society against an unjust aggressor. The official Vatican statement on Hussein’s execution described the Church’s position as being “opposed” to the death penalty, affirming that execution of the guilty party is not the way to reestablish justice and reconcile society. Nonetheless, Pope Benedict — then Cardinal Ratzinger — affirmed in a 2004 letter to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty.” While the present Vatican statement does not refer to any possible exceptions in which capital punishment might legitimately be pursued, we should not infer that the Church now categorically denies the possibility of such exceptions.

— Fr. Thomas Berg, L.C. is executive director of the Westchester Institute.

E. Christian Brugger

Reasonable opposition to Saddam Hussein’s execution, as expressed by the Vatican’s spokesman, need not entail the conclusion that malefactors of Saddam’s magnitude do not in a distributive sense deserve to die for their crimes; or that their criminal behavior is fundamentally pathological, not moral, and hence beyond their responsibility; or that the concept of retribution is a fiction invented by the medieval mind, a concept, to quote the famous Oxford legal philosopher, Herbert Hart, which “we may very well discard.” Nor should it be seen as proceeding from a lack of concern for the victims of Saddam’s ruthless rule. The judgment against killing him derives in the first place from Christian anthropology. Each thing’s goodness proceeds from being the kind of thing it is, that is, stems from its nature. This is the theological ground for the term human dignity. Human dignity signifies the goodness of the human person according to human nature. This nature is a bodily spiritual nature, which, scripture teaches, is made in the “image” of God. So the sui generis origin of human nature’s special dignity stems from being in God’s image. Because human nature is inalienable, so too is human dignity. It follows that one’s bodily life, as intrinsic to human nature, possesses inalienable, godlike dignity. To intentionally kill a man is to will in a radical and determinant way against this immeasurable source of godlike dignity. And so, although Saddam, who apparently set his will against innocent human life many times, “deserves” in one sense to die for his crimes; that forfeiture can only be effected through intentionally killing him. But this entails a radical and determinant intention to destroy good human life; and this entails a disorder in the will of those who command it and carry it out.

— E. Christian Brugger is associate professor of moral philosophy and director of integrative research at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Va.

Richard W. Garnett

A spokesperson for the Holy See, Rev. Federico Lombardi, responded to the Saddam’s execution with this: “An execution is always tragic news, reason for sadness, even in the case of a person who is guilty of grave crimes.” In what sense, though, is Saddam’s execution “tragic”? Certainly, his life and death hardly resembles a “tragedy”; his was not the downfall of a great man, a protagonist, undone by a tragic flaw. Hussein was a thug and a killer. He deserved punishment; his crimes warranted retribution. The challenge for the Church, it seems to me — and for all of us who, perhaps without complete conviction, oppose capital punishment — is to carefully, and with due regard for the strong counter-arguments, make the case that even legitimate public authority, responding to the worst offenders and offenses, may not ever impose the death penalty. Can this case be made?

— Richard W. Garnett is a professor at the University of Notre Dame’s law school.

Michael Novak

J. R. Dunn at www.AmericanThinker.com gives us a succinct motto for the great historical marker of December 30, 2006; the words come from Giovanni Boccacio: “There is no more acceptable sacrifice than the blood of a tyrant.”

Yet I felt an undeniable sadness, heaviness, and sense of tragedy about the actual moments of the heavy rope going over the head of the murderous Saddam Hussein. He was not only a tyrant, but an unusually brutal and sadistic one. Still, he was a man. He was also a man of talent, and a man of large dreams. He could have done so much more, he could have been so infinitely more creative, life-affirming, and rights-protecting than he was. That is the tragedy, that is the sadness.

Yet December 30, 2006, was a day of world-historical importance, not because of the hanging, but because of the rule of law, a law which treats dictators the same as common people. Not often has this rule of law been observed in recent practice in Middle Eastern states, in regard to dictators. But now the magnetic power of the rule of law may spread from this small circle outwards. From now on, every dictator, especially cruel and brutal ones, must sleep with nightmares of their own lives ending under a process of law. Where the national law so commands, they may die by the noose, struggling momentarily until their feet go still. It is an ignominious death.

The Coalition of anti-extremist forces had three aims in making war in Iraq in 2003: To topple a regime that was aiding and abetting terrorists and working to obtain weapons of mass destruction (especially chemical weapons, which it had already used against Iranians, the Kurds, and the Shiites of Iraq); second, to bring Saddam Hussein under the rule of law, according to the constitution that the Iraqi people themselves chose to live under; and, third, to support Iraq’s fledgling democracy until it can defend and sustain itself, as an ally of all nations opposed to extra-legal, extremist terrorism.

The first of these aims was quickly attained during the summer of 2003. Not too long afterwards, the rule of law was enshrined in a new constitution written by their representatives and consented to by the Iraqi people. Then, in due course a disheveled Saddam Hussein was found in a “spider hole,” and brought under lawful procedures of justice as established by his people. The Coalition war aim did not require the death of Saddam, but death was in fact required by the law of Iraq.

The crucial point has been and is the rule of law. Under great difficulties, and with considerable heroism and persistence, the legal system of Iraq functioned in accord with that rule of law. That noble achievement is now an imperishable marker in the history of the Middle East. The rule of law applies without respect for persons. It applies even to dictators of formerly unrivaled power. The law humbles all to “equality under the law.”

The third aim of the Coalition intervention remains to be secured: the protection and support of the new Iraqi rule of law, and the institutions that the Iraqis have established to make it concrete and real, until the new Iraq can sustain and defend itself.

At this point, having achieved two out of three great, noble, and difficult purposes, the whole free world and all those opposed to extremist, lawless terrorism have cause to rejoice. And to draw long slow breaths of renewed purpose and determination.

Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

Michael Pakaluk

I accept the Catholic teaching that, although many crimes are by their nature deserving of death, the state should apply capital punishment only when “bloodless means” would not suffice to achieve the purposes of punishment. Prudential judgment is needed here, but arguably life imprisonment is not adequate in three cases at least: first, when the criminal’s continued life in prison would serve as an incitement to others to commit crimes; second, when society is so unstable, that there is no guarantee that a criminal condemned to life in prison would indeed remain there until his death; and third, when the criminal is not simply guilty of an offense against a particular person, or a particular society, but also has committed crimes “against humanity.”

Saddam Hussein, as an example of all three, would seem to be a textbook case of justified, and thus mandatory, capital punishment. The speed with which his execution was carried out may even appear commendable: an example of moral clarity and resolve.

It is difficult to see how his execution could be “tragic” or “criminal,” and yet not also the actions of the Nuremberg tribunal in executing Hans Franck, Julius Streicher, and other monstrous Nazi criminals.

— Michael Pakaluk is professor of philosophy at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

Fr. Thomas Williams, L.C.

Was Saddam’s execution a tragedy or a simple act of justice? I see no reason why it could not have been both. Justice is sometimes tragic. No one could mount a credible case that the Iraqi sentence was unjust. Hasty perhaps, but certainly not unjust. If justice is served by the restoration of a relative moral balance, then Saddam’s execution has nudged us in that direction, though his death in no way undoes the staggering amount of evil that he perpetrated while in power. Yet at best, a state execution is a necessary evil. From the standpoint of Catholic moral teaching, capital punishment should be limited to extreme cases where the public authority has no other way to defend the lives of its citizens. It is quite possible that Saddam’s execution meets this criterion. A real fear continued to exist that after a civil war Saddam could return to power and reintroduce a reign of terror. Catholics believe that where bloodless means are sufficient to defend against an aggressor, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they are more in conformity with the dignity of the human person. If in some parts of the world this isn’t yet possible, that is tragic.

— Father Thomas D. Williams, L.C., is dean of the theology school at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum University where he teaches Catholic Social Doctrine, and is a Vatican analyst for NBC News and MSNBC.

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