Saddam's death is lesson to us all

1st June 2007 at 01:00

I FOUND myself curiously disturbed to hear of the execution of Saddam Hussein. It was not unexpected; it had all the theatrical build-up of a drum roll. Nor did the world seem a worse place for the loss of a mass murderer, torturer and sadist. But it felt like one of those "You'll remember where you were when you heard" moments.

I once rented a flat in Brighton for the summer. It belonged to the son of a famous romantic novelist and its bookshelves held an eclectic range of reading. Among the books was one debating the death penalty. It contained a detailed description of the process of hanging by the neck until dead, as practised in Great Britain. Like the execution by lethal injection of a man in the United States, where it took half an hour for him to die while chemicals which should have been introduced only after he was defunct, destroyed his internal organs, hanging is by no means as quick and aesthetically satisfactory as one might wish. The book removed any doubts I had that capital punishment should be irrevocably abolished.

I have no post-imperial sense that my distaste gives me the right to determine what other countries should do with their most loathsome criminals. But events such as the execution of Saddam appeared to me to raise complex issues.

There was, for one thing, the fact that his death was followed instantly by 60 or more others, as Sunni car bombers targeted Shia district market-places. What value does the ritual extinction of one wicked life have when it precipitates 60-fold, the abrupt vaporisation of other innocent lives?

For another, there was Saddam's defence lawyer's chillingly convincing comment that, throughout the Islamic world, the execution of Saddam would be seen as the murder of a Muslim by American invaders at a time when the Haj was in full swing and religious sensibilities were at their highest.

While these portents of today's worse horrors might have been enough to suggest that the execution would turn out to be a landmark event, the notion that it was almost certain to have been counter-productive was reinforced by reading Mark Kurlansky's Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Jonathan Cape, 2006).

Kurlansky shows convincingly that, in their original form, all the world's greatest religions prohibit killing. Judaism and Christianity's "Thou shalt not kill" is followed by no string of exceptions allowing "just war" or "legal execution". Those come later. Similarly, Muhammad's revelation, "Whoever kills a human being should be looked upon as though he had killed all mankind", seems unequivocal, but was moulded to justify realpolitik shortly after the Prophet's death.

Kurlansky puts together a string of historical examples to suggest that all violence, all killing, produces more violence and more killing. More moral debate on the apparently escalating interpersonal violence that scars our age might usefully be added to the curriculum for all young people.

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