Iraq deserves more than a hanging

By Tim Hames (THE TIMES, 30/12/06):

What to do with deposed dictators has long troubled the men who followed them. The British and the French memory and history of regicide, an experience remembered as so savage and traumatic, meant that Napoleon was forced into exile by his captors even though he had escaped once before from incarceration.

It was never likely that Saddam Hussein would be sent to a distant island. His rendezvous with the gallows was secured from the moment that he was prised from his hiding place by US soldiers three years ago. His only other realistic alternative was suicide.

Yet, in truth, Iraqis would have been no worse off politically and better off morally if they had allowed Saddam to be a prisoner for the term of his natural life, thousands of miles away from his country. His death of itself will not bring “closure” to his victims in large part because he has become an irrelevance. Iraq and Iraqis moved on very quickly after he was toppled; he became a marginal figure.

Predictions that Iraqis would be transfixed by the spectacle of his trial proved a false prophecy. Americans were probably more absorbed by the spectacle of O. J. Simpson charged with the murder of his ex-wife more than a decade ago. There will be some short-term celebrations and violent condemnations within Iraq to be sure but I doubt whether they will last long into the new year. Once again, the effect would have been the same, if somewhat less dramatic on the streets, if he had been spared and later imprisoned in exile.

Saddam spent most of his decades in power seeking to divide Europeans from Americans. His death will continue that policy. There will be few US politicians of real standing who do anything other than recognise Iraq’s absolute right to have its former strongman hanged, indeed applaud this outcome as justice pure and simple. Yet America is a nation that concluded its bloody civil war by depriving Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, of his vast estate at Arlington but otherwise allowing him a retirement of some liberty.

In Britain and the rest of Europe the response will be different. Even those of us who supported the invasion in 2003, and continue to do so today, will harbour within their ranks, like me, those who find the notion of this execution offensive. This despite the fact that the evidence of Saddam’s atrocities is overwhelming and he offered no quarter to his opponents or even to members of his family whom he believed had crossed him. Mainstream middle-class sentiment in Europe now regards the death penalty as being as ethically tainted as the crimes that produced that sentence. It is, I admit, a contestible sort of morality that allows for bombing from thousands of feet at targets where civilian deaths are probably unavoidable, yet is repulsed by the thought of the noose, regardless of the appalling acts the guilty man committed and ordered when he had the opportunity. And this in a continent, Europe, where barely an eyelash flickered at the executions that followed the Nuremburg trials.

The sense that Saddam had become irrelevant reinforces, I think, that division. Those of us who are profoundly opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances may have been willing to concede a tiny amount of ground to those on the other side of the argument if they were able to point to positive consequences of this execution. These benefits would not have justified the crack of the hangman’s rope but it would have made it appear something superior to high-class revenge.

For there was something of value that could have been secured by allowing Saddam Hussein to stay alive. Every trial for every atrocity that he ever committed could and should have been conducted to a conclusion. The proper process of law would have shown exactly how many vile deeds against Iraqis were initiated not by the Sunni community as a whole or the wider Baathist party structure but at the deliberate behest of one man and his tight clan and family inner circle. It would have served, in an imperfect way, as Iraq’s version of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

And when that process had been completed, the villains could and should have been sentenced to a living death, not death instead of living. It would have brought Iraq closer to full closure than what will occur instead — a series of trials at which the defendants will claim that “I was only obeying orders”, a plea that will be much harder to judge fairly without Saddam himself sitting in the dock beside them.

That said, most Iraqis will be closer to the American than the European view on the merits of execution. Even those who object to the hanging of Saddam will not be disturbed by the principle of the State taking his life. There is, nonetheless, an interesting exception. Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish political leader and today Saddam’s successor as Iraq’s President, is an opponent of the death penalty who had to be persuaded that it was his duty to his country not to try to block this execution. It is because men such as Mr Talabani exist in positions of high office in Baghdad that, despite all the difficulties, Iraq’s future is destined to be so much better than its awful past.