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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Execution of Saddam Hussein

I broach this topic with a heavy heart, because I can see no good coming out of the current situation in Iraq.

In principle, I am not opposed to all use of military force to remove tyrannical regimes - not where there is some urgent issue and it appears very likely that the operation can be carried out with a balance of good over harm. That is not meant to be an easy test: when you go to war, the potential for horrific, individually unpredictable, ramifications is endless. Without wanting to embrace any precise set of principles, such as those of traditional just war theory, I am always going to look with a sceptical eye at any proposal to go to war, and will want to see some convincing explanation of how the ramifications can be managed, as well as powerful humanitarian justification. Unlike most of my friends, I thought the war to remove the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was justified, but I am now dismayed by the way the aftermath is being managed. I have always been opposed to the invasion of Iraq - from Day One, it looked like madness - but I have no wish to crow about how badly the operation has gone since Saddam was actually removed from power. I just hope there will, against the current odds, ultimately be some reasonably satisfactory outcome.

Furthermore, my opposition to the death penalty is less than absolute. First, let me clear: I cannot imagine realistic circumstances in which I would support its re-introduction to the penal codes of countries that have abolished it. Nor can I imagine circumstances where I would support its retention in, for example, those US states that still have it. There are many good reasons not to have the death penalty as an option in ordinary domestic systems of criminal justice.

That said, the balance of considerations may be different in one-off cases like this involving murderous tyrants who have killed and tortured on a mass scale, and whose guilt in a vast range of crimes against humanity is not in serious doubt, even if particular details are uncertain. I find it hard to believe that such people have a "right" to go on living that trumps all else, so whether we retain the option of a death penalty in these special cases is much more open to argument. Or so it seems to me.

But at the end of the day, I can't see what has been gained by killing Saddam Hussein. Better to have let him eke out his old age in prison somewhere. Besides, there is too much of a sense that this was a kangaroo court ... and then there is the not-so-small matter that many of his other crimes will never be able to be investigated properly. The whole thing just looks too contrived, like something the victors wanted to get out of the way as quickly as possible. Whatever else we want to say, this does not look or feel like justice.

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