[VIEWPOINT]A fitting punishment for dictatorsWith the historic capture of deposed Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein, there will almost certainly be at least one trial related to the untold thousands of killings that occurred in his name or at his behest. Whether he is tried in an Iraqi tribunal or an internationally sanctioned court, he will likely be found guilty, given the overwhelming evidence of his direct involvement in these murders and in other crimes against humanity.
If he is convicted, an important question remains: what should be done with the so-called “Butcher of Baghdad”?
Prior to Dec. 13, Saddam’s capture―much less his conviction―was by no means a foregone conclusion, which made talk of any punishment a bit premature. But now, amid demands for harsh punishment, there are also calls to show mercy to the man who himself was merciless toward those who opposed him ― save the former Iraqi leader from the death penalty and lock him up for the rest of his life.
The typical arguments for or against capital punishment could be made in this case. Proponents would remind us that a living and breathing Saddam could easily be perceived as an ongoing threat to the Iraqi people, as well as their neighbors. His presence in the country, even if in a prison cell, could be a rallying point for die-hard loyalists. Certainly any plan to spare Saddam’s life must take this into account. If he were locked up somewhere in Iraq, there would be legitimate fears among his people of a Napoleonic return to power. If his life is spared, perhaps a lonely Spandau Prison-type facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba or near The Hague would be the best place for him to finish out his days.
Even opponents of capital punishment admit that if anyone in the 21st century deserves the death penalty, it is probably Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, there are a number of reasons―both ideological and practical―to forgo meting out the ultimate punishment to Saddam in favor of life imprisonment.
Life imprisonment goes beyond showing mercy to a man who himself seemed not to understand the concept. Mercy for such a wicked man, whom Human Rights Watch blames for at least a quarter million deaths, is a powerful message to send to a world where violence and revenge still reign supreme in many areas. Especially in Iraq, which has seen so much torture and killing, it would be a sign that a new era has begun.
Saving the Butcher of Baghdad would be a practical and tactical move aimed at eliminating the possibility that he would become a martyr and rallying point for the armed insurgents who still roam freely in parts of Iraq. Moving him thousands of miles outside Iraqi territory would guarantee that he is tucked away too far and too securely to be returned to power. In fact, a living, publicly tried and convicted Saddam could become a powerful symbol of his failed regime and all of the oppression and atrocities committed on its behalf.
Saving Saddam would have repercussions beyond the borders of Iraq. A decision not to execute him also sends a message to other murderous tyrants who now rule or who might rule in the future: giving up in the face of civil uprising, economic chaos, or even military opposition, will not lead to your own physical demise.
With such accused mass murderers as Kim Jong-il still in power, sparing the life of the Iraqi despot might have a positive influence in some conceivable situation in which the North Korean dictator, for example, sees the handwriting on the wall but is hesitant to step down. The treatment of Saddam today might nudge Kim tomorrow toward giving up peacefully rather than making a violent last stand.
This is not to say that such dictators should be given a “get out of jail free” card. indeed, if convicted of crimes against humanity, such dictators should be punished. But insisting on the death penalty in such cases might end up costing lives in the long run.
* The writer is a news commentator for EBS, the Educational Broadcasting System.
by Jonathan D. Hilts