The gallows are, along with the guillotine, one of the most recognizable symbols of Capital punihsment. In the West, they symbolize at best the harsh but just punishmnt metted out to Western outlaws and pirates and at worst lynchings in the South and witch trials in Salem. In two ways, Saddam Hussein, who came closer to deserving the death penalty than probably any man who has ever been in US custody since the Nuremberg trials, still managed to evoke all the negative imagery associated with the gallows, not only through his own ingenuity up to the end, but through the very nature of Capital Punishment.
I didn’t, and won’t, watch the video, but the pictures that were made public initially make clear that Saddam was looking to do as much harm as he could. He looked dignified, religious, and composed, in all three ways a departure from the way he lived his life. The random voice in the audience taunting him worked to complete the image: Saddam, the very picture of stability, being killed by a victorious instability chanting the name of a violent and anti-American cleric.
But more than that, Saddam’s death showed the futility of the death penalty. What was accomplished? At best, Iraq may start healing; certainly many Shia and Kurdish Iraqis were overjoyed. But our purpose is to bring stability, not vengeful joy. Alas, killing Saddam did not accomplish that. It will almost certainly further polarize a nation where common ground is rapidly eroding into a sea of animosity and ill will. And one can hardly argue that it was a deterrent. Opponents of the death penalty frequently argue that since criminals don’t expect to get caught, no punishment can deter them. This is not always true; many criminals are doubtless deterred by the possibility of punishment. But Saddam was not a common criminal; he was much more dangerous. Saddam’s death can’t deter future dictators from following in his footsteps, because as soon as a dictator reaches the sort of meglomania necessary to become a Saddam like figure, he is well beyond believing he can possibly be captured.
The only real motive, then, is vengeance. The fact that the death penalty was pursued with so much zeal and greeted with such glee is evidence of the same root causes of our addiction to the death penalty, regardless of what justifications we choose to use. And in this particular case, Saddam Hussein has managed to use the inherent barbarity of the death penalty to make the current Iraqi government look cruel even as it indulges in a tiny fraction of the violence Saddam could inflict in a single day.