Volume 76, Number 33 | January 10 - 16, 2007

Talking Point

No mercy, no farewells: The rush to hang Hussein

By Jerry Tallmer

Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad and E.M. Forster and Graham Greene — those dry-point surgical anatomists of the White Man’s Burden — yes, and Albert Camus too — all of them put together could not have dreamed up the indecent fast-forward termination of the life’s breath of Saddam Hussein as, in fact, it happened and was captured by, of all things, naturally, the video function in a cell phone.

“We fornicated and read the newspapers” is the way Camus once memorably summed up our era. On the Sunday morning of New Year’s Eve 2007 one could read in a newspaper called The New York Times the withering report by John F. Burns — that fearless, matchless, ultra-professional, ink-stained wretch — on the “surreal and even cinematic” (Burns’s words in a follow-up) premeditated murder of Mr. Hussein. Did I say murder? I meant the hanging. But reading about that obscenity did not induce fornication.

“An execution is not simply death,” Camus wrote in “Reflections on the Guillotine,” the seminal essay that in 1957 or ’58, when I first read it, made up my mind on capital punishment once and for all. “It is just as different from the privation of life as a concentration camp is from prison…. [It] is the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated, can be compared.”

A great justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Hugo Black, of Alabama, had one principle above all: He was a First Amendment absolutist. Well, one is either a capital punishment absolutist — against it in all cases, all weathers, all crimes — or one is not. It does not matter how hideous and horrible the criminal and the crime.

I admit this creates some concrete difficulties. I would not have hanged Eichmann, but would I have approved the hanging of Hitler or Goebbels had they not committed suicide? Who knows?

And did something deep within not take secret, ugly pleasure in the upside-down dangling death of Benito Mussolini?

Ah, but that, you see, was not premeditated and not state-organized a la Kafka. In short, it was a lynching.

Well, then, what about Mussolini’s girlfriend, what’s her name — Clara Petacci? — hanged upside down in that gas station beside him?

That was … unfortunate.

Which brings us back to basics: One is either totally against capital punishment or one is not, even in the case of someone as hideous as the Saddam Hussein who would have killed and gassed and tortured to death as many people as Hitler if only he’d had access to that many.

I further admit that it’s far easier for me — a non-Iraqi, non-Arab, non-Shiite, non-Sunni, non-Muslim, non-Kurd and nonmember of the 21st century’s United States armed forces, 3,000 of whom have died in that faraway hell-scape — to say any of this than someone who lived and suffered cruelly under Saddam.

But I think you don’t have to be Iraqi to deplore what John Burns called the “indecent haste” with which George W. Bush’s bogeyman, dug up out of his mud hole, was rushed to the gallows by a squad of politically adverse Iraqi judges and jailers “without the mercy of family farewells and other spare acts of compassion that lend at least a pretense of civility to executions under law in kinder jurisdictions … a miserable and lonely [death] as stark and undignified as Iraq’s new rulers can devise.”

Undignified — that’s the word. Even the Americans, Graham Greene’s ugly Americans, the managers and fixers and commanders and colonels and C.I.A. boys who dug us into this mess (under Digger-in-Chief George Bush) in the first place, were, according to dispatches, deeply rattled and deeply shocked. Slow down, they said to all concerned — to no avail.

Rush to judgment, rush to the noose and the trapdoor. I think of Camus and Hugo Black and Kipling & Co., and of one other person, former Congressman Herman Badillo, returning dispirited in 1971 from the shooting gallery that Governor Nelson Rockefeller, overriding a panel of mediators, had unloosed at Attica Prison.

“I don’t know what the hurry was,” Badillo wearily said. “There’s always time to die.”

Maybe even Saddam’s executioners will someday learn that haste — indecent haste — makes waste. But do not count on it.


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