Saturday, December 30, 2006


I begin writing this post at 12:30 Australian East Coast time, one and a half hours before Saddam Hussein is due to hang. The news is contradictory on the topic. Some sites say he might be hanged at 2pm my time (dawn in Iraq); some say it’s definite, some say no way. Anyway by the time I’ve posted, we’ll all know.

Is it right?

For those of us that agree with the death penalty it’s a no-brainer; the guy’s a savage killer – good riddance. In the United States (one of the world’s top executioner states) it’s relatively easy for politicians, especially conservatives, to welcome the verdict and it’s application. In Australia where the death penalty is almost universally regarded as barbaric it’s more of a problem.

I’ve shifted through dozens of web sites all elucidating the ethics of death. There’s the site of David Berkowitz better known as the Son of Sam who blames Satan for his spree of 1977 killings in NYC; there’s the pro death penalty site which goes into graphic detail about the
crimes for which some people have been condemned in the US. Various other sites brought me graphic images of death by bulletwound in China, hanging in Iran, botched electrocution and the multiple hanging of Abraham Lincoln’s killer and associates.

What conclusions did I derive?

None. I don’t believe in the death penalty: there are two main reasons. First it is more enlightened, more humane not to execute, regardless of the nastiness perpetrated. Whilst I do agree that in the intuitive sense of the word justice is served by terminating the life of persons who do horrible things I believe it is the mark of an enlightened society not to take life. Secondly there is much to learn from killers, rapists and sociopaths. If we understand how they tick, what caused them to be what they were, or, in the absence of causal factors how we recognize them, we may be able to save lives.

In the case of heads of murderous states however the question is more complicated. Pinochet was let off precisely because he was a head of state. Milosevic dragged an international court through years of procedural labyrinth before finally dying of natural courses without conviction. Heads of state who use the apparatus of the country to perpetrate horrendous murders, rapes, tortures and deprivations of liberty are able to carry out much broader ranges of crimes on a larger scale than any single mass murderer/serial killer no matter how clever and bloodthirsty. And the way things stand it is relatively easy for them to escape justice.

The burden of proof that requires the prosecution to demonstrate guilt beyond reasonable doubt is a factor. In a future world where murderous heads of state are routinely brought to justice the onus on the prosecution to demonstrate guilt might provide a loophole that allows these people to get off. I would suggest that in the case of a head of state tried for crimes against humanity committed by the state that that individual should have to demonstrate that they were unaware and unwitting. In other words the burden of proof should be reversed.

As for the death penalty? Hussein himself is said to have preferred this to a life languished in prison; a martyr’s death he deemed it. Maybe a lifetime in confinement, powerless, living at the behest of guards is exactly what these people deserve. And perhaps we can learn from tyrants the way we learn from psychopaths.

In Hussein’s case we’ll never know. The headlines are out: the man is dead. I don’t believe in the death penalty but I can’t say I’m sorry.

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