January 4, 2007
The hanging of Saddam was yet another surrender to barbarity. The chief barbarian was hanged by the victorious barbarians, and we’re supposed to feel righteous about it. How futile to atone for a series of atrocities by enacting yet another. The human mind knows no end to final solutions.A spokesman for the Catholic clergy, Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Vatican’s Justice and Peace department, asked for last-minute clemency for Saddam. “You can’t think of compensating for one crime with another one,” he reasoned. But that’s exactly what we do, heaping fuel on the fire of vengeance.It was reported that Martino also criticized U.S. authorities at the time of Saddam’s capture in December 2003 for releasing pictures of U.S. soldiers checking his teeth “as if he were a cow,” images that he said needlessly humiliated the man.The humiliation goes beyond Saddam. It infects all of humanity. Capital punishment isn’t simply aimed at the condemned; it is a ritualistic purge for the society that judges, condemns and executes.Saddam’s crimes against humanity, as enacted upon the Kurds, were widely considered deserving of the death penalty. His gruesome hanging was to provide redemption and a final vindication for the invasion of Iraq.But if Saddam must swing, then what of other heads of states who have violated human rights? Are they also deserving of the gallows? Which cultural norms should prevail in assigning death as the ultimate payback for crimes against humanity?The advocacy of the Catholic Church on Saddam’s behalf was based upon the ecclesiastically assigned value of life – or at least human life. The scope of moral judgment needs to expand to a universal embrace.Weighing in on the sanctity of all life is for moralists with a far broader reach than those who speak for the church or assign death sentences to vanquished foes. Charles Darwin wrote that such empathy must come from conscience, an evolutionary trait that develops from human reflection on moral qualms.We must exercise conscience more than ever as population pressures increase, ethnic conflicts spread, resource competition grows, and the widespread technology of killing produces a global tragedy. We need conscience in our approach to nature, or we risk losing the source of all life.As E.O. Wilson points out: “Science and technology are what we can do; morality is what we agree we should or should not do … Thus, our place in nature is to think about the creation and to protect the living planet.”Killing things, whether fellow human beings in spurious wars, genocide and ritualistic hangings, or in the natural world through gluttony, sport and ignorance, demands moral reasoning and an ethical response. Rather than cheering the dominance of the victor or the supremacy of man, our conscience must bear on our acts.”All ethics rest upon a single premise,” wrote Aldo Leopold, “that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.” Conscience and ethics determine the value of our membership and the quality of our members in both nature and society.Hanging Saddam was no victory, but rather a moral defeat. A life sentence serving in Kurdish refugee camps, caring for children, would have seemed a more rational and humane means of atonement.Instead, we are all dehumanized by the spectacle of the noose and the taunting. There is no healing, just another wound. There is no forgiveness, just vindictiveness. There is no conscience, just revenge. There is no progress, only evolutionary stagnation.
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