Not surprisingly, the December 30th execution of Saddam Hussein brought forth a good deal of bloviating, much of which was ill-advised, if not plain stupid.
Consider this jejune statement from Holy See Press Office Director Fr. Federico Lombardi S.J.:
“The execution of a capital sentence is always tragic news, a cause of sadness, even when the person is guilty of terrible crimes. The position of the Catholic Church against the death penalty has often been reiterated. The killing of the guilty is not the way to rebuild justice and reconcile society, rather there is a risk of nourishing the spirit of revenge and inciting fresh violence.”
First of all, while the “position of the Catholic Church” NOW is mostly against the death penalty, one need only consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church for the salient details…
“Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason, the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty. For analogous reasons those holding authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the community in their charge.” ¶2266
“If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.” ¶2267
Pope John Paul II added the following, in his encyclical Evangelium vitae (1995), addressing when the death penalty should be used:
“Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” ¶56
You will note that these teachings completely contradict the last sentence of Fr. Lombardi’s remarks, and provide scant support for the first two. But, let us continue.
It is vastly helpful, when analyzing moral and ethical matters such as these, to invoke a tie breaker, as I call it. This tie breaker is the virtue of prudence, which we can define here as “wisdom shown in the exercise of reason, forethought, and self-control.”
Furthermore, we can limit ourselves to discussing only the execution of Saddam, to avoid complicating the matter.
We may then ask ourselves if bloodless means would be sufficient to protect public order. Some within Iraq would no doubt be inspired by Saddam as long as he were alive, and might even contemplate rescuing him from prison. To say that he is not the typical prison inmate is an understatement. In fact, he would always be a massive attractive nuisance and an impediment to reform.
But, you say, couldn’t “improvements in the penal system,” as referred to by the late pope be used to keep him at bay?
Let’s assume that they could be, but at what cost? Perhaps tens of millions of dollars per year. Is this charity? How much misery could be alleviated in Iraq for tens of millions of dollars per year?
How many innocent Iraqi children should die to keep Saddam alive? This is not an extreme question, because with money—especially money that is allocated and not earned—it really IS a zero sum game. More than that, money is the most objective thing in the world, since whether we like it or not, nearly all forms of human endeavor can be measured with it.
We may not like the results we get by measuring things with money, but you can’t argue with the numbers, can you?
The retiring CEO of a poorly performing company such as Home Depot is paid $30 million per year, with a golden parachute worth $210 million. Thus, someone—the one paying him—obviously thinks that he is worth hundreds of times more than the managers of his stores. We may disagree with this result, but we cannot argue that this is not the case.
Looking at it another way, why reward Saddam with a subsidy of tens of millions of dollars per year? Is this evil dictator worth such treatment? Should we compound his evil with evil of our own?
In short, the best solution for him was the gallows.
As to those who complained about the lack of dignity during the execution, you’re kidding, right? Dignity, as we Americans understand it, does not really exist in the Arab world, with its constant over-the-top emotional displays in street demonstrations, funerals, faux news reports, and just about any other form of social intercourse you would care to name.
Besides, worrying about dignity in this situation is infinitely too finicky and precious for my taste, and I would suspect, the tastes of many. I would add–
Who cares? And good riddance!