There has understandably – in my view quite rightly – been an outcry at the distribution of video footage of the execution of Saddam Hussein. Whatever you think of the man, as a head of state and as a human being, you surely must, unless of a ghoulish turn of mind, regard this incident as one of the low points in the recent story of Iraq.
I am not going to discuss the deeds of Saddam Hussein. Enough ink, enough hot air and more than enough demagoguery have been expended on that subject which would require a scholarly book to do it full justice. My thoughts today are concentrated on the execution, the behaviour of those charged with carrying it out and the implications of these for all of us.
I am opposed to capital punishment. I thought it morally wrong, as well as a political mistake, to condemn Saddam Hussein to death. The argument over the rights and wrongs of capital punishment have been well rehearsed over many years and I do not intend to repeat them here other than to say that the Iraqi government had an opportunity to raise itself morally above the frightful morass of sectarian sadism and assert humane standards but failed lamentably to take it. Our own government also failed by giving its passive acquiescence while Bush’s cynical triumphalism surely needs no further comment. If we do not behave better than those whose immorality we condemn then how can we dare to judge them?
Saddam Hussein is dead. The circumstances and consequences of his death now concern the living. Whatever we think of the man, the fact remains that he was, and will remain, an important political and historical figure and for that reason what he did and what was done to him will be of significance for a long time to come. His death, and the manner of it, will echo back and forth around the political world.
Videoing the execution was a reprehensible act and the public circulation of the footage even more so but perhaps some good may come of it. In the first place, it shows that an execution is always a sordid affair. There is nothing noble or cleansing about killing someone. Whether it is the dropping of a guillotine blade, a lethal injection, a high-voltage jolt of electricity, a bullet in the back of the head or the snapping of the neck at the end of a rope, it is a horrid and sadistic act. It is a good thing to remind people of this from time to time, especially as the demand for a restoration of the death penalty periodically rears its ugly head.
Secondly, this execution and the manner of it, conveniently captured on video, will remind us that those who claim that justice is impartial and non-sectarian are wrong. At its best, justice redresses the balance between exploited and exploiter but at its worse it is merely an excuse for revenge. Justice can never be completely free of the taint of revenge. Justice is necessary to an egalitarian and humane society but it comes at a moral cost. We should never forget that.
If the death of Saddam Hussein could be regarded as the final full stop in a terrible story of violence, corruption, mismanagement, crime, injustice and political confusion, we might yet draw some comfort from it. I fear that this is not so, that this execution will merely prove to be one more incident in the long odyssey of suffering whose final destination is still remote and unknown.