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December 29, 2006
Three Years Later, A 'Rush'

A little more than three years after Saddam Hussein meekly came out of his spider hole, the Iraqis have finally removed the last obstacle to his execution. Saddam attempted, with some success, to transform his trial into a political showpiece, using it to rail against the American occupation and to inspire the Ba'athist remnants to terrorist attacks. Despite having several members of the court assasinated or attacked, the tribunal convicted Saddam for crimes consistent with the evidence. And yet, this is not enough for the New York Times:

The important question was never really about whether Saddam Hussein was guilty of crimes against humanity. The public record is bulging with the lengthy litany of his vile and unforgivable atrocities: genocidal assaults against the Kurds; aggressive wars against Iran and Kuwait; use of internationally banned weapons like nerve gas; systematic torture of countless thousands of political prisoners.

What really mattered was whether an Iraq freed from his death grip could hold him accountable in a way that nurtured hope for a better future. A carefully conducted, scrupulously fair trial could have helped undo some of the damage inflicted by his rule. It could have set a precedent for the rule of law in a country scarred by decades of arbitrary vindictiveness. It could have fostered a new national unity in an Iraq long manipulated through its religious and ethnic divisions.

It could have, but it didn’t. After a flawed, politicized and divisive trial, Mr. Hussein was handed his sentence: death by hanging. This week, in a cursory 15-minute proceeding, an appeals court upheld that sentence and ordered that it be carried out posthaste. Most Iraqis are now so preoccupied with shielding their families from looming civil war that they seem to have little emotion left to spend on Mr. Hussein or, more important, on their own fading dreams of a new and better Iraq.

So let's get this straight. What is really important isn't the hundreds of thousands of people that Saddam had killed on his whim. It isn't lengthy public record of his "vile atrocities". It isn't the long string of living victims that had to bear witness under difficult circumstances to those who could not appear in court. What really matters, the Times insists, is that the process did not "nurture hope".

Well, the purpose of trials is not to nurture hope -- it's to determine the truth regarding guilt or innocence of the accused. In this, the tribunal succeeded, although as the Times notes, the issue was not in much doubt. The trial also succeeded in giving voice to many of Saddam's victims, something the Times must have missed in its zeal to find hope-nurturing elements in a genocide trial. The tribunal also established solid legal precedents for a fledgeling judiciary that has to establish itself mostly from scratch.

The reluctance of the Times to support Saddam's conviction is puzzling, given that they concede all available evidence paints him as one of the worst monsters in the past few decades. It seems to spring from an objection to his sentence rather than his conviction, as they end with a warning that Saddam's execution will not create a "new and better Iraq," but that's not the purpose of criminal sentencing, either. Sentences serve dual purposes: to protect society and to serve as a deterrent to others, neither of which has anything to do with creating a new and better anything.

As I am opposed to the death penalty in civilian courts, Saddam's execution presents an interesting challenge. Michael Stickings says he cannot support the death penalty under any circumstances, but I think there is a large distinction between civil death sentences and those under wartime and genocidal conditions. The execution of spies and saboteurs, for instance, offers a deterrence to those who would commit those acts during wartime, and the elimination of that as an assured result of capture would create a flood of saboteurs and spies, especially if they received the same treatment as POWs. Similarly, genocidal tyrants tried by their own people and executed for their crimes serve as an example for other tyrants to fear -- and it removes the jailed tyrant as a focus for restoration, a situation that history has proven to be dangerous to recovering societies.

In any case, the Times proves itself laughable once again by proclaiming a three-year process towards Saddam's execution as a "rush" and complaining about a verdict and sentence that even they admit were completely justified by the evidence at hand. Perhaps next time, the editorial board should not be in such a "rush" to opine. (via It Shines For All)

UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers from both links! And don't miss Jules Crittenden's take on this story.

UPDATE II: Stephen Bainbridge addresses Pope Benedict's objection to the execution and agrees with my take in a post well worth a full read.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 29, 2006 6:18 AM

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