Life is not served by Saddam's death

  • January 5, 2007

Long before the execution of Saddam Hussein in late December, the world had come to understand clearly the character and career of the former Iraqi dictator. He was a man of blood in the baleful tradition of earlier strong men in the modern era: murderous and cruel, vengeful, suspicious and infinitely jealous. He meted out terror and torture to his real or imagined enemies, and corrupted his society with the constant threat of violence. For the countless crimes they committed, Saddam and his henchmen deserved severe and lasting punishment.

Yet, despite all I knew about what Saddam did to his people during his savage reign, I was sickened and saddened by the news of his death.

Once again, the wrong and wrong-headed notion that execution is just was given a boost in the public imagination. Once again, we were tempted to believe the great lie of our era: that life is served by death, that the extinction of a human life makes something — anything — better.

For whatever reason, most Catholics seem to understand the profound consequences of believing this lie when the topic before them is the fate of unborn children. Despite all the fashionable blather about a woman's "power over her body" and so forth, we Catholics tend to be repelled by the wanton destruction of something so vulnerable and innocent as a human fetus. It is, or should be, obvious that abortion solves nothing and heals nothing.

But when the topic is capital punishment — which similarly solves nothing and heals nothing — Catholics appear to be sharply divided. A poll of American Catholics conducted in 2005 for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found that 48 per cent of those who responded favoured the death penalty, with 47 per cent opposed.

These statistics are sobering. They suggest that, for roughly half of America's noisily pro-life Catholics, being pro-death is acceptable under certain circumstances. They also suggest that most of these Catholics have decided to ignore the clear teaching of their church in this matter. In 1999, Pope John Paul II left no doubt at all about the church's view of capital punishment: "both cruel and unnecessary," he called it, noting that "modern society has the means of protecting itself without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform."

More recently, in an official Vatican response to Saddam's execution, spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., said on this past New Year's Day: "To kill the guilty one is not the way to rebuild justice and to reconcile society. The risk also exists that, on the contrary, the spirit of vengeance will be fuelled and new violence be sown. In this dark time of the life of the Iraqi people, one cannot but hope that all those responsible will make every effort so that in a dramatic situation channels of reconciliation and peace will finally be opened."

The bad news is that no such openings toward reconciliation and peace are in the offing in Iraq, and that the execution of Saddam will probably speed the country's descent into greater turmoil. Beyond Iraq, the hugely publicized killing of Saddam — and the cheering by people of the "good riddance" persuasion — will encourage the death-penalty countries to keep on using the noose, firing squad and the injection on offenders. Killing, as always, breeds more of the same.

The good news is that, since the Second World War, dozens of countries with many millions of people — including the nations of the European Union, Canada and Mexico — have outlawed the death penalty outright; and none of these places has shown much inclination to reverse its decision.

Even in the United States, where execution has long been popular, there are signs that the public may be losing its taste for it. The U.S. watchdog group Catholics Against Capital Punishment reported at the end of last year that, according to an independent poll, "more Americans support alternative sentences of life without parole over the death penalty as punishment for murder." Death sentences are at a 30-year low, and the number of people on death row has gone down. In several states, the death penalty has been ruled unconstitutional or been suspended for other reasons.

Such facts will surely come as encouragement to Catholics who are pro-life right down the line, with respect both to the innocent and to the guilty.

Meanwhile, however, the death of Saddam will remind us that, though progress has been made, the universal renunciation of capital punishment is still a distant hope — and worth working and praying for.

(Mays is a Toronto author and journalist.)