Mercy speaks louder than murder

By Minette Marrin (THE TIMES, 31/12/06):

‘How do y’all like that jumbo shrimp,” the kindly obese jailer asked the black prisoner sitting in front of a plate heaped with good southern food on death row. It was the boy’s last meal in a famous prison in the southern states of America, and in their humanity — or rather in the ghastly traditions of capital punishment — the authorities had allowed him to choose whatever he wanted to eat.

This last treat, this final whopping serving of ice cream sundae and jumbo shrimp with fries was clearly supposed to console the prisoner for the fact he was about to be fried himself. Perhaps it was also designed to console the overweight warders in their straining uniforms, who were now treating the boy with a horrifying kindness, as if perhaps that might expiate the guilt of the murder in which they were taking part. Other warders solemnly bustled about, verbose with embarrassment, going over the drill for the final walk, checking out the electric chair, and rather incompetently executing a rabbit in the process.

Then the boy was led away, his stomach full of luxurious food that would never be digested, surrounded by the compassionate and solemn murmurings of his murderers, disbelieving and stumbling in his chains towards the same nasty death as the rabbit’s. Through a window opposite the botched-looking chair was a small crowd of people with official permits waiting patiently to watch his final spasms.

These are scenes from a documentary film I saw many years ago, which immediately changed my mind about capital punishment and turned me permanently into a strong opponent. I have never been able to get them out of my mind. The prisoner may well have been guilty, although much of the evidence against him was tainted. Being of low intelligence and very poor, he was perhaps a person of diminished responsibility but his crime was particularly brutal, assuming he committed it. But even assuming he was every bit as guilty of as many unspeakable crimes as Saddam Hussein, the crime committed against him and against public morality by the state and all those complicit in it was just as terrible, and, I think, worse.

Killing a man in cold blood, no matter what he has done, with all kinds of procedures to give it an air of normality and respectability, is obscene. It tends to deprave and corrupt anyone who sees it or hears of it. The pictures of Saddam with a noose around his neck were the worst kind of voyeurism; they should never have been released. They are the stuff of snuff movies.

It was wrong of the allies to hand him over to be hanged. The trouble with judicial killing is not that it is bad for the victim, who might well deserve some unspeakable punishment. It is that it’s bad for those who do it and, by extension, for the wider society. It is corrupting. It is brutalising.

The same can be said for invading and bombing a country without due cause, but that is another argument. In all the horrors of the occupation of Iraq, almost everything is obscured by the choking fog of war. One thing, however, does stand out clearly from all the dust and death: it was wrong to hang Saddam Hussein.

Of course most people wished him dead. I did myself. I wish that he had been shot at the time of his arrest, under the conventions of war and in the heat of the moment. Failing that, I wish that he had been court-martialled and summarily shot under army conventions, which we can all see are different from civil codes.

The allies spent untold blood and treasure specifically trying to bomb him to bits. They thought killing him worth a great deal of collateral damage. So it might seem odd, to draw the line “on principle” as our government does, at killing him neatly, judicially and without collateral damage.

However, my point is that no matter how lawful and careful, judicial murder always does have collateral damage, but of a different and less obvious kind. I’m not talking about the political consequences in Iraq of Saddam’s execution; I have no idea of what they will be and nor, I suspect, does anyone else. I mean the damage done to the feelings and the conscience and the general culture of the participants in capital punishment. It is right that there is, particularly in the most humane societies, an extremely powerful taboo against killing, and the process of taking a life.

That taboo protects us from our most savage and anarchic instincts and supports our most civilised responses; it protects us from turning into Saddam or Mao or Stalin, and it is noticeable that these monsters usually emerge in countries where the taboo against killing and torture is weak. Killing may not always be wrong but if it’s to be condoned, if the taboo is to be lifted, it needs an equally powerful justification such as self-defence or a just war. In Saddam’s case, as of yesterday, there was no powerful enough reason for killing him; there were plenty of other ways of punishing him and expressing moral outrage.

Napoleon Bonaparte, who was responsible for bloodbaths and misery right across Europe and Russia, was sent into wretched exile on Elba. P W Botha and Augusto Pinochet were not executed; South Africa and Chile chose to spare them in the name of peace and reconciliation. Saddam could easily have been exiled somewhere unpleasant; Guantanamo Bay comes to mind. There was — and always is — the political problem of how to deal with brutal tyrants such as Saddam; perhaps if leaving him alive was likely to galvanise his supporters and bring down even more chaos upon Iraq, there might be an overriding reason to execute him. As I say, no moral principle can ever be absolute; there are occasions when killing may be morally defensible. In this case nobody even pretends to know what response there may be to Saddam’s death.

As for the response of the bereaved families and the uncomprehending response of the wider world, who can pretend to understand that either? Nobody can bring back the tortured dead; all we do know is that vengeance breeds vengeance and that mercy, where it is least deserved and least likely to be found, is perhaps a more powerful response and a far better example of what is right than yet another murder in cold blood.