William F. Buckley

Many data, historical and analytical, are being thrust at us, following the pronouncement of the death sentence on Saddam Hussein. What one might loosely call "the prosecution," anxious to defend this mite of justice handed down by the Iraqi court, reminds the world that it is incorrect to assume that the execution of Saddam can measure up to what Saddam did. Remember, we are told, the court ruled on only a single barbarity, namely the Dujail massacre.

That involved murdering about 150 Shiites. They were being punished for conspiring against Saddam. Most of them were, simply, shot. But not all. Some, we learned, were inserted into meat grinders. If the trial revealed what were Saddam's motives in this alternative means of execution, word of what they were has not got out. Most would think it naive even to ask. The idea -- alternative means of execution -- wasn't a scientific experiment: Execution by bullet, or by giant blades that tear bone and flesh apart -- which is better? The idea, manifestly, was to exhibit the lengths to which Saddam was routinely prepared to go in order to discourage dissent.

We are reminded that there is no mathematically satisfying way to measure the life of Saddam up against all the lives he destroyed. As well suggest that an execution of Hitler or Stalin or Mao could ever have balanced the scales on what they had done. Capital punishment is exacted, in modern law, as punishment for taking a single life. Taking hundreds, thousands, millions of lives mocks the very idea of executable justice. But the symbol of Saddam on the gallows is a symbol of justice pursued, even if plenary satisfaction is not possible.

The date is not set, but we are advised that under Iraqi law, execution is required to take place not more than 30 days after the affirmation of the sentence. And so we pause to anticipate the cries against capital punishment. Thoughtful citizens, especially those dutifully inclined to listen to the teachings of the Christian church, acknowledge that to endorse the sentence on Saddam is to endorse the capital punishment decried by a very large school of ethicists and, indeed, by the pope himself.

Let's go ahead and acknowledge that taking a life, even under civil sanction, asserts an authority over human life not lightly assumed. In the arguments of the abolitionists -- and that includes most Western governments and 110 percent of the world's professional ethicists -- this is never justifiably done in cold blood.

William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley, Jr. is editor-at-large of National Review, the prolific author of Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography.

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