Just Deserts

Separating Hussein’s execution from therapy.

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

In Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, a “committee of sappy women” petition the governor to pardon the murderous Injun Joe.“If he had been Satan himself,” Twain snorts, “there would have been plenty of weaklings ready to scribble their names to a pardon petition, and drip a tear on it from their permanently impaired and leaky waterworks.”

I thought of this passage as I read with disgust the international reaction to the hanging of Saddam Hussein. People who shrugged at Hussein’s torture, mutilation, murder, and genocide are now shocked, shocked that his victims sent him off to Hell with a few humiliating barbs. What do you expect? These are the people whose fathers and brothers were slaughtered by Hussein and his minions. It strikes me as the epitome of restraint that they just hanged him rather than paying him back in cruel kind.

A lot of this uproar is merely the whine of ideological and political axes being ground. Europe’s complaints in part reflect the knee-jerk, clichéd anti-Americanism that addles the brains of those presumably more sophisticated and nuanced thinkers across the Atlantic. Also, Europeans have fooled themselves into believing that they have evolved beyond such barbarous practices like capital punishment. They haven’t caught on yet that their EUtopia is a transient luxury financed by American military power. They’re idealists because they can afford to be. Let the conditions that have subsidized their idealism change, and we’ll see how pacific and civilized is the continent that gave us two world wars and a genocide.

As for the Russians and Arabs, it takes monstrous shamelessness for them to make a peep. Russia has handled its jihad problem in Chechnya by killing tens of thousands and leaving Grozny looking like Berlin in 1945. As for the Arab regimes, torture and summary execution are as common as flies. And why would we pay any attention to the complaints of Iraqi Sunnis, many of whom still idolize the murderous Hussein and still torture and murder their fellow Iraqis?

But in the West, larger cultural forces account for the bizarre sentimentalism that thinks feeling sorry for the deserved humiliation of a ruthless psychopath is somehow the sign of a superior moral sensibility. Maybe it is, if you are a person of faith, aware of his own sinful nature and believing in a God who will judge and to Whom the evil must answer. But most of the whining about Hussein has come not from the religious but from the liberal secularists who sneer at talk of good and evil. And that provides us the clue to this reaction.

Such concern for murderers and indifference to their victims reflect the therapeutic imperative dominating the affluent West: any suffering, even of those who have earned it by their heinous acts, is an abomination to be clucked over and avoided. This attitude is in turn generated by the deterministic superstition that ultimately murderers are not responsible for their crimes. Since all causes are material (genes, lack of education, unjust social and economic institutions), free will is a chimera, and good and evil merely empty labels for the effects of these material causes.

Once moral responsibility has been stripped from actions, all suffering is equal and equally intolerable. Not that we should be unmoved by the suffering of even the evil. The tragic sensibility of the ancient Greeks could recognize and even pity the suffering of an enemy, as Aeschylus does in the Persians, but this recognition was never sundered from a moral judgment — “the doer suffers,” Aeschylus says elsewhere. We should feel the suffering of the evil, but never apart from our consciousness of the crime that earned it, and never without the sobering lesson that we too are subject to the same punishment if we transgress the limits put upon our actions. That’s how, as Aeschylus puts it, “suffering teaches.”

But for us therapeutic sentimentalists, all suffering is bad, even that of the guilty, and so we should eliminate it even for them. And we think this attitude is more “civilized,” that the common humanity of the evil is more important than their evil deeds. But of course most evil people are still in many ways human like us. Most of the Nazis who perpetrated the Holocaust loved their wives and children, experienced joy, appreciated beauty, and feared pain and humiliation and death. So what? That’s like saying they had two eyes and two legs. They were still evil and deserved to pay for the actions.

This sentimental indulgence of evildoers has encouraged more evil by ignoring the whole issue of responsibility and just payment for one’s freely chosen actions. How is that “civilized”? How is it a moral advance to allow those who despise the humanity of others to burden the earth with their presence, to enjoy the sun on their face and the food in their mouths, and all the other goods they stripped from others?

Ah, but that is mere revenge, some say, and we have evolved beyond revenge. Personal vengeance, taken apart from the community’s laws and protocols, is indeed an evil. But the vengeance of the community, its institutionalized punishment of those who violate its collective values, is justice. If that punishment includes a few seconds of humiliation, it is still just, considering the crimes that earned the punishment. Instead of weeping, like Twain’s biddies, over Hussein’s sordid but richly earned end, we should be celebrating that the world has been disburdened of a monster, and that his evil has met its just deserts.

©2007 Bruce Thornton

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