The Thinker

The Problem with Vengeance

Saddam Hussein has gone to meet his maker. Shortly before dawn this morning, the former Iraqi dictator was hanged. Reputedly, justice was served. Hussein received the same ultimate penalty that he and his henchmen inflicted on reputedly hundreds of thousands of Kurds and Shi’ites during his twenty-five years or so as national dictator and despot. Hussein at least had the benefit of having his guilt established in an open trial. One thing is for sure: Saddam Hussein will not be around to inflict further atrocities.

I certainly understand the need for the survivors of Hussein’s tyranny to see Hussein suffer some small measure of the pain that was inflicted on them and their loved ones. Mesopotamia, after all, gave us Hammurabi, the Babylonian king. Nearly four thousand years ago he invented a form of justice that was still evident in Saddam’s hanging today: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Saddam’s hanging of course could not begin to really equal the voluminous misery he inflicted on others. Still, death is the ultimate penalty. Having Saddam spend a couple of years in prison knowing he was going to pay the ultimate penalty was probably a very miserable experience.

The problem is that by hanging Hussein, the justice that was served did nothing to solve the underlying problem. Rather, by hanging Saddam the violence in Baghdad is likely to worsen. Ninety-two people died from violence in Iraq today. A curfew imposed later in the day will hopefully staunch the violence, although most likely the violence will keep recurring until it is fully expressed. Sunnis will feel even more aggrieved by Saddam’s execution. Shi’ites and Kurds will feel even more righteous. If national unification is the goal, it is hard to see how serving this kind of justice, no matter how lawful and fair, will serve Iraq’s national interests.

Real solutions to Iraq’s sectarian problems can only be solved by changing hearts and minds. Saddam’s execution was thus counterproductive toward those ends. All sides will be more inclined to dig in their heels and less inclined to work toward national reconciliation. Imagine if during our Civil War we had captured General Robert E. Lee and had him hung for treason and for ordering the murdering hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers. It is unlikely that the Confederacy would have suddenly felt the desire to sue for peace.

What then does this execution really accomplish? While it does give survivors some feeling of vengeance, I am not persuaded that vengeance as a form of justice will be much of a deterrence. By definition, no sane people would engage in violent crime in the first place. Millenniums pass by and regardless of how lax or strict the execution of our laws is, violence continues at roughly the same levels it always has.

I think that vengeance is like throwing wood onto a fire: it keeps it going. What is needed is something that will douse the fire. What justice for Saddam Hussein would have served both as punishment and have served the interests of the stability of Iraqi society?

In countries like Liberia and South Africa, truth and reconciliation commissions have proved to be effective vehicles for mending societies torn by decades of strife. Such a commission in Iraq could have done much to reduce sectarian tensions by allowing victims to air their grievances. Now that Saddam is dead, those who did not have a chance to formally air those grievances feel in some measure that they were not heard, and consequently justice was not served for them. The Kurds suffered thousands of deaths because of chemical attacks ordered by Saddam Hussein. Their rage, which should have had the opportunity to be expressed in a proper forum, is instead bottled up and unchecked instead. As a result, this rage is likely to cause further destabilization and violence in the future.

I think it would have been better for all parties had Saddam been tried by the International Criminal Court. It was established precisely for these kinds of crimes. By having his crimes adjudicated by an external court, it would have had the pleasant smell of impartiality. Instead, Saddam was tried in an Iraqi court. While the evidence of Saddam’s guilt was clear enough, impartiality was simply not possible. Lacking impartiality, the verdict smelled malodorous. It is true that had the International Criminal Court convicted Saddam Hussein, he would not have been executed. Most likely, he would have lived out the rest of his life in isolation in a prison in some place like The Hague. There, isolated, alone and unempowered, a rough form of justice would have been served in the form of impotence and obscurity.

Too often justice is merely a code word for vengeance. We need to understand that society’s purpose in seeking justice is not to elicit vengeance. Instead, it is to elicit true repentance from the criminal if possible, ensure future behavior does not recur, and to ensure the rest of society is safe from a criminal’s actions. We need justice that does not amount to being Band-Aids on society’s gaping wounds. Instead, we need actions that promote the wound’s healing. Unfortunately, as Saddam’s execution points out, the need for vengeance simply helps ensure that future Saddams will likely reemerge from the toxic environment he left behind. Therefore, the karmic cycle will repeat until someday, perhaps, Iraqis learn the lesson and get it right.

Saint Paul got it right in Romans 12:19-21:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

 

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