The Tyrant is Dead! Long Live … ?

The King is dead. Long live the King! With such words, proclamations about the departure of a deceased and the rule of a new monarch have been announced to the court and, subsequently, to the world. According to the Wikipedia website, “The phrase arose from the law of le mort saisit le vif–that the transfer of sovereignty occurs instantaneously upon the moment of death of the previous monarch.” In the world of lawful rulers, the title of monarch is hard to challenge. A monarch may be, and often is, a dictator, but the sanctity of his rule is rarely questioned. Nonetheless, if overthrown and executed, the regicide is often mourned and regretted after the fact. Reverse the equation, and the situation is rather mockery than a real sorrow. The execution of a dictator is hailed as a justified accomplishment, but notes of doubt manage to creep in, notwithstanding the back-patting pretence of justice being carried out.

In Saddam Hussein’s case, his departure from this world was accompanied with the following words: “The tyrant has fallen.” And no one proclaimed: “Long live the tyrant!” to immediately announce transfer of sovereignty to the next in line. Saddam is dead, and who would dare to announce that a new dictator is about to reign over Iraq (or that the U.S.-backed president of Iraq is its new dictator personified)? And wouldn’t it be even too pessimistic to predict that the next Iraqi government will be as tyrannical as Saddam’s rule ever was? However, the question at hand is not about whether the dictator should be punished for his horrible deeds and be hanged as a common criminal. And the question is not about the fact that Saddam’s tyrannical deeds were aided by the U.S. government when he was a convenient pawn to be used to further American interests in the Middle East. The question here is rather about the fairness of an execution so hastily carried out–less than four days after the verdict–and at the dawn of one of the two most important Islamic holidays. By cowardice and being an U.S. pawn, thus we know the current Iraqi government. By tactlessness and ineptitude we know the Bush administration.

Anybody who saw pictures of Saddam Hussein’s execution could comment on the dignity written on Saddam’s face in the last few minutes of his life and the criminal appearance of his executioners, whose faces were covered by ski masks, exactly as bank robbers’ faces that are shown on TV–whether in movies or documentaries. Indeed, the impression is that a martyr had been executed in cowardly fashion by criminals presiding over the country. While the current Iraqi government’s officials may boast about the justice finally imposed on the former ruler of Iraq, we need to ask ourselves whether Saddam’s execution displayed Iraqi officials acting according to law or rather in a spirit of barbaric revenge. (In any case, it did reveal the indifference of the international community on this matter.)

It is a given fact that Saddam’s cruel rule inflicted death on thousands of innocent Iraqi people. And it is also a fact that U.S. government officials supported his criminal deeds when it was convenient for U.S. interests abroad. Does the realization of the former make this execution more justified than Saddam’s execution of Iraqis? Doesn’t our knowledge of U.S. complicity in Saddam’s crimes evoke the need to judge also those U.S. officials involved in his support? Is the execution of the criminal moral per se? Is capital punishment less barbaric than the original crime?

According to L.P. Pojman’s definitions of capital punishment in his article “For the Death Penalty” (1998), “institutional or legal punishment is an evil inflicted by a person in a position of authority upon another person who is judged to have violated a rule.” One word in this definition stands out immediately; that is, capital punishment is a calculated “evil,” no less. The irony of the situation is that those who are authorized by law to punish the violators, in reality murder those whose actions (or murders) are considered morally wrong from the point of that law. The murder in the former case is justified while the murder in the latter is condemned. Hence, there is an inherent contradiction between what is proscribed by law and what is prescribed as a remedy. In “Reflections on the Guillotine, Resistance, Rebellion and Death” (1966), Albert Camus offered the following considerations on the morality of official executions:

“An execution is not simply death. It is just as different from the privation of life as a concentration camp is from prison. It adds to death a rule, a public premeditation known to the future victim, an organization which is itself a source of moral sufferings more terrible than death. Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated, can be compared. For there to be an equivalency, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.”

But such monsters are definitely encountered in official life of politics. In this particular case, the Iraqi government committed a premeditated murder of Saddam and, prior to this, the U.S. government handed him to his enemy, namely the current Iraqi authority. Therefore, the U.S. complicity in Saddam’s previous crimes resulted in betraying him later on. It is important to remember that handing the criminal to his enemy is against international law. Moreover, another interesting fact is that Iraq reinstated the death penalty in August 2004, during the U.S. occupation. The new law on capital punishment became more expansive than it was during Saddam’s years at the helm of Iraqi government. But who is to judge the criminal complicity of the U.S.A. during and after Saddam’s dictatorial rule and the devastating effects of the U.S. occupation of Iraq? Which international authority will dare to confront the bullying power of the U.S.A. and demand its responsibility in international crimes?

While the U.S. government brags about bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq, which suffered during Saddam’s regime, during those years and today it is perpetrator or accomplice in many of the criminal deeds inflicted on the Iraqi people. Behind good words hide evil means that–in reality–do not lead toward but rather barricade the path to democracy and civilization. As J. Reiman put it in his article, “Why the Death Penalty Should Be Abolished in America” (1998), the level of our “civilization is characterized by lower tolerance for our own pain and of others.” When the state refrains from imposing grave harms such as a death penalty on those who deserve them, it propagates a powerful message about the repugnant nature of capital punishment, in this case, of Saddam’s execution. By shifting to abolition of capital punishment, the government, or the state, acts in a way that advances civilization. It is definitely a deep contradiction between our country’s claim to be a harbor of freedom and democracy–of civilization, in other words–and tolerance for the pain of the Iraqi people.

The partners in crime, in this case, Saddam and his U.S. supporters (during Saddam’s regime before the invasion of Kuwait at least) cannot be judged differently, on dissimilar grounds. By executing its former ally, the U.S. government falls still lower and commits vengeance instead of justice. By continuing its occupation of Iraq, the Bush administration discloses that all its proclaimed intentions of bringing freedom and democracy to Iraqi people are false and hollow. Moreover — to end with John Milton’s words–the current U.S. politics in Iraq in general and its role in Saddam’s execution in particular “seem to cast ominous conjecture on the whole success.”

ALEVTINA REA lives on Olympia, Washington and can be reached at