Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Saddam Hussein execution

Jane Galt asks who's watching the Saddam Hussein execution video.

Jane mentions:

Okay, so I'm against the death penalty...
The commentary is very interesting. One comment asks:
If he had been given life in prison, what would have happened if a group of Baathists had held a school bus full of kids hostage and demanded his release?

Another comment asks:

What would you do with Saddam -- that is morally proper, given his
proven crimes?

Finally, another commenter asks:

I am neither Jane nor a death penalty opponent, but I can
understand why one would oppose it in the criminal justice
system. What I can't understand is any kind of ethics,
except for an absolute belief that taking life under any
circumstances is unjustified, that says that there is no
imaginable crime that justifies death in retribution.

As someone who opposes the death penalty, here is my answer to the
questions in reverse order.

To the 3rd question, the death penalty is (by it's very name)
limited to the criminal justice system. You don't exercise the death
penalty in war. It is a penalty that is only exercised as part of
a system of justice for crimes. Being opposed to the death penalty
can only be applied to the criminal justice system
as that is the ONLY place that it's exercised.

But to the issue of the ethics of not taking life under any
circumstances, I would say that I do not believe that. I certainly
stand by the idea that taking another's life in self defense is
acceptable. Additionally, I think that the individiual participants
in a war are acting in self defense in that there is an enemy out
there who is attempting to kill them. It gets somewhat less clear
cut the higher up you go, e.g. up to the person ordering the war.
The higher up you go, the more the circumstances come into play.
Was this a response to a attack from someone else? Even, from the
point of the attacker, was it a response of last resort?

I don't have clear cut answers for anything other than self-defence.
But, in general, I think a case can be made for justifyably taking
another's life outside the boundaries of the criminal justice system.

My problem with the death penalty inside the criminal justice system
is this. The criminal justice system has mechanisms for undoing
mistakes that it makes in the exercise of its role... except for the
death penalty. The death penalty assumes that the criminal justice
system is infallable in its judgement, something that the system
itself does not assume. So that once you've executed a person,
there's no way to say "oops" after it's done. One could argue that
the same can be said of someone who's been wrongfully imprisoned,
but with the death penaly there's no way that you can even attempt
to make up to the wrongly accused. They are no longer around to
recieve your apology.

With respect to the 2nd question, my instinct is to answer that he
be given life in prison, in an undisclosed location. Of course,
that doesn't answer the problem proposed in the first question,
for which, I do not have an "off the top of my head" answer.

But thinking about it, bad people will be bad people with or without
Saddam Hussein being alive. He is a convenient reason to hold that
schoolbus hostage. With him dead, they will find some other reason
to hold the schoolbus hostage. His being alive or dead does not
change the probability that some group of bad people will hold
a schoolbus full of children hostage. Executing Hussein seems
unlikely to prevent future bad things from happening. What seems
more likely to me is that executing Hussein will prevent using him
as an excuse for for future bad things.

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