Caught only snippets of the Saddam Hussein trial today–a few minutes in a cab, a 2-minute story on the 11pm news. But what stuck out for me were the quotes from people–American, Iraqi, those directly harmed by him and those not–about how he should get the death penalty, how he should be hanged in the public square as retribution, fed to the dogs, etc. And the merest suggestion of capital punishment–even for someone who has committed as many unspeakable crimes as this man–made me shudder. I don’t believe that murder is a reasonable punishment for anything, even murder on a very large scale. And I don’t think it ultimately helps anything.

So it got me thinking, though–Okay, so I’m Captain of The Universe and I get to decide what sorts of punishments should be meted out. What’s better? What popped into my head was something like having somebody have to watch hours and hours and hours of videotape about the consequences of their actions. In Hussein’s case, there’s plenty of footage of horrible things happening to people in the moment. So a lot of that. Plus also interviews with people who had legs cut off, who were raped, disfigured, lost family members (etc.) about their experiences and the irrevocable changes in their life since then. It’s one thing to sign a paper admitting that one did such-and-such, a list on a printed page. It’s another thing entirely to be confronted with the consequences of one’s actions in all of its vivid, gory, personal detail. Even if the goal isn’t “rehabilitaion” (something I think is an excellent goal in some cases, this one not probably being one of them), sometimes having to face how much we’ve destroyed be the greatest and most powerful prison we humans could build.

Of course, as my friend Laura observes, some of the people who are operating on this scale of horrible are probably clinical sociopaths, and not capable of human empathy (which is what made doing this stuff so easy in the first place.) In which case this particular plan wouldn’t work, but there must be some way of addressing the fact that this person is very, very mentally ill.

In any case, I’m wondering a lot about what justice is, and how we get it. Not vengeance, but justice. I’m not sure I even understand what that means, but even so I’m pretty sure it’s my goal as far as these things go. What is the just way to deal with someone who has inflicted much suffering on others, in such a way that it doesn’t create further suffering?

I think of the many stories I’ve heard of Tibetan monks and nuns being tortured for years and years in Chinese prisons and reporting afterwards that the most horrible part was that they feared losing compassion for their torturers. Afterwards some of them even hold prayer vigils for their former captors. Or the mother of a boy who was murdered taking in and adopting the boy who murdered him, because at some point she realized that this other kid remaining broken and unloved didn’t cause her own child come back, and love might be the thing that redeemed both of them.

Of course, justice and forgiveness aren’t the same thing. One can be just and not forgive. [For further reading on the complexities of forgiveness, see The Sunflower by Simon Weisenthal, which starts with his story in a concentration camp, being asked to forgive a dying Nazi on behalf of the Jewish people, and is mostly various very wise people from many religions and perspectives saying what they would do. They don’t all say the same thing. ]

But even if the people who have been hurt unspeakably by Hussein never forgive him, there have to be some ways to deal with great crime that don’t compound the suffering we’ve already got. Because, frankly, I think we’ve already got plenty out there for the moment.

Share This