Is there a chink in the armor of absolute opposition to capital punishment in America? In the wake of Saddam Hussein’s hanging, a review of the post-mortem press suggests that there was some reluctance of the part of liberal anti-death penalty groups to clearly reaffirm their view that the death sentence is always wrong. On its website, for instance, the ACLU declares that “the death penalty is the ultimate denial of civil liberties.” But there was precious little of that talk as it applied to Saddam.
The great majority of Americas and Europeans believed that the Butcher of Baghdad got what he deserved, though many criticized the gruesome photographs of the event. As Fouad Ajami put it in U.S. News & World Report, “There was mayhem at the gallows, and there was justice at the gallows.”
Virtually all Americans, including Iraqi Americans, said Saddam got a fair trial and deserved the ultimate penalty. Not so New Yorker editor Hendrik Hertzberg, who wrote that “Capital punishment’s worst affront is not to the dignity and humanity of the condemned. It is to the dignity and humanity of the policy that decrees it.”
Nonetheless, polls showed that a clear majority of Europeans supported Saddam’s execution. In contrast, many of their key political leaders expressed moral outrage against the hanging because they oppose capital punishment no mater how horrendous the crime.
Writing in National Review, Theodore Dalrymple, a prison psychiatrist, said few members of the “European official class and its tame intelligentsia . . . missed the opportunity to express an unctuous self-righteousness about the death penalty.”
Several European governments criticized Saddam’s hanging because they regard capital punishment as cruel and barbaric. The European Union charter decrees that no one “must be condemned to death or executed.” (Really? No one?) The top human rights official of the Council of Europe, Terry Davis, said that the hanging was wrong, and that Iraq had missed an opportunity “to join the civilized world.” He added that Iraq needs “justice, reconciliation and peace, not hangings and revenge.”
Elsewhere in Europe, the elite reaction was much the same. Le Monde shouted “No to the Death Penalty.” The German foreign ministry restated its opposition. A high Belgian official said the “death penalty is not compatible with democracy.”
The British, Irish, and Italian foreign ministers also reiterated their country’s opposition. The left-leaning British Independent said Saddam’s execution defied the worldwide effort to “scrap the death penalty” and can “too easily be portrayed throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds as victor’s justice.”
All of which made the elite reaction in America even more strange. Typically, ACLU and Amnesty International power the anti-capital punishment movement. But these two crusading groups were uncharacteristically quiet in the wake of the Baghdad hanging, even though they have not altered their unqualified opposition to it.
The ACLU condemns America for not abolishing the death penalty, even for heinous crimes such as multiple murders. (Moving beyond the mandate implicit in its name, the ACLU recently condemned a Kuwait official, presumably living in Washington, for forcing three women domestics to work “against their will under slave-like conditions.”)
Similarly, Amnesty International calls the death penalty “the ultimate cruel and degrading punishment” and seeks to end “executions and the abolition of the death penalty everywhere.” It found Saddam’s trial “shabby, deeply flawed and unfair.”
But despite the vigorous campaign to abolish the death penalty, most Americans support it. In 2006, polls showed that 65 percent favored capital punishment for murder; only 28 percent opposed it.
Funny, then, that the ACLU and Amnesty International would shy away from the opportunity Saddam’s execution afforded them to once again put their case against the death penalty to the American people.
— Ernest W. Lefever is a Senior Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.