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News from the Continent: Victor’s Justice

It is hardly newsworthy that Europe generally opposes the death penalty. It would be foolish to think that the execution of Saddam Hussein would prove an exception to this cultural rule. To be fair, Europe’s officialdom was somewhat muted in its criticisms of the execution. While the Vatican called Hussein’s execution “tragic news,” and many British bishops decried the loss of life, Britain’s foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, said that Saddam had now been “held to account.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel adopted similarly cautious language: “We respect the verdict, but the German government is known to be opposed in principle to the death penalty.” The French foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, simply “acknowledged” the execution and called on Iraqis to work now for national reconciliation. Much as they might object in principle to capital punishment, European officials were not going to lose sleep, in short, over Saddam’s hanging.

The European press was a different matter. Take the article “No more gallows!” penned by Paolo Mieli, editor of Italy’s leading daily, Il Corriere della Sera, on January 1. Mieli objects to the death penalty in all circumstances but especially for punishing leaders of the vanquished party in wartime. He went so far as to cast doubt on the justice and fairness of the Nuremberg trials. For Mieli, tyrants deserve milder forms of punishment, like detention or exile. The Irish edition of the Sunday Mirror concurred, on the grounds that the death penalty is something that “the civilized world” should always condemn. And the French 24 Heures was on the same wavelength: on December 28, the subtitle of its piece on the forthcoming execution quoted a Human Rights Watch representative as saying “Even for a tyrant, the death penalty remains barbaric.”

Farther from the mainstream, the French Communist newspaper, L’Humanité, smelled a cover-up, informing readers in a January 2 op-ed by Hassane Zerrouky that “the fear of revelations about how Western countries were implicated in the crimes of the dictator explains the desire to eliminate him before he could reveal embarrassing details.” The trial was “a parody of justice,” he wrote, liberally interspersing the names of French companies with those of Rumsfeld, Halliburton, and Bechtel. The message was clear: the real criminals were the leaders and governments ultimately responsible for Saddam’s hanging. The Independent’s Robert Fisk seemed to be of the same opinion. In a December 31 article, he managed to sublimate his disappointment by turning Saddam’s death into a happy occasion for America-bashing: “We’ve shut him up. The moment Saddam’s hooded executioner pulled the lever . . . Washington’s secrets were safe.” Joining this chorus in the January 1 edition of the Guardian, Tariq Ali called Saddam’s execution a “colonial hanging” and a cover-up besides: “what is conveniently forgotten is that most of his crimes were committed when he was a staunch ally of those who are now occupying the country.”

Such rhetoric even found its way into London’s usually more responsible Independent. A December 31 editorial called the verdict – and hanging – “Victor’s Justice,” a theme that also featured prominently in the Mail on Sunday (“A grisly act of victor’s justice that will do nothing to bring peace”) and in its daily twin (“Justice? No, a sordid show of mob vengeance”). The Independent saw no conspiracy and took only some issue with expediency. But it criticized Saddam’s hanging on broader, philosophical grounds: “the deliberate taking of a human life is a crime. It cannot be right, therefore, to punish a crime by committing another. Ultimately, nothing can resist the force of that argument, and eventually the death penalty will be outlawed all over the world. But not, yet, in Iraq, or most southern states of the U.S.”

That journalists tacked irrelevant jabs at the U.S. onto their criticisms of Hussein’s execution removed none of the weight from arguments claiming that, despite his heinous crimes, Hussein should still have been allowed to live. But whatever merit humanitarian philosophical arguments against capital punishment may have, they are difficult to apply in the face of the facts. Saddam was not a candidate for moral or political rehabilitation. His death was the least that the mute cries of his two million victims required—not victor’s justice but the justice of the vanquished. No more gallows? We can only hope. But we know, at least, that there will be no more gallows erected by Saddam Hussein—despite those who remained silent during his brutal reign and raised an outcry only at his death.



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