Wednesday, January 03, 2007

On Saddam

To summarize my thoughts first expresses in a good, passionate debate over at Olaf's place:

Saddam Hussein was a brutal, ruthless dictator who is responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1 million people (including in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88) during his 24 year rule in Iraq. He used torture, assassination, fear and genocidal war crimes to maintain his tenuous hold to power. He deserved the severest punishment for his crimes.

I shed no tears for Saddam.

That being said I cannot support his execution on principle. I am an opponent of the death penalty in all cases. Quite simply I do not trust the state to exercise the power of life and death over citizens, not when there is the possibility of even one innocent man being executed. The death penalty is most often used by brutal dictators like Saddam to oppress and terrorize their people. So I cannot support the death penalty even for Saddam.

You may disagree, and that is your prerogative.

But as Olaf and I got into, I feel that the entire trial and subsequent lynching by the Shia militia execution by the Iraqi government did not serve justice for the Iraqi people.

Firstly, he was executed for killing the inhabitants of a village in 1982, after an attempted assassination. He was not tried and executed for war crimes committed in the Iran-Iraq War, for gassing the Kurds or for the murders of the Shia and Marsh Arabs after the Gulf War. His secrets and information from that time went with him to the grave, conveniently.

Second, his execution has further destabilized Iraq (if one can imagine Iraq being MORE unstable). The Sunni insurgency now has their martyr. Conspiracy theories saying it was a double and Elvis-like sightings are already coming to light. The Shia have a gloat, a cudgel to pound over the head of the Sunni and secularist in Iraq. The video with sound was brutal and reminiscent of the 1920s American South, and ironically the same brutal techniques used by Saddam himself. 'Good' you say, 'poetic justice'. Well, consider that 3000 Americans have died, 25000 have been wounded and thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have died to replace Saddam with a group that are the same as him, if not worse. And they are Islamic fundamentalists with close ties to Iran. An emasculated Saddam, in a 6x6 cell with one hour of daylight per day would have been more effective and less inflammatory, a sad old man in a cage, instead of a martyr.

Third, justice for the Iraqi people is not done until those who supported and helped Saddam, through action or omission during his reign are also brought to justice. It is no mistake that Saddam's most heinous crimes occurred for the nearly half of his rule in which he was a US ally. Indeed, it was the US and other western powers that sold him the weapons and gas to commit his crime as well as the SIGINT and satellite intelligence to target those weapons. Prof. Juan Cole has an excellent rundown of Saddam's ties and relations with the US government and the CIA (who had a relationship with him from 1959 up to the Kuwait invasion in 1990). Read these along with Dave and Cheryl's exceptional analysis of the reasons for the current Iraq war in "It Was Always About Oil" Part I and II. Then ask if Saddam is alone in his responsibility for his crimes. Guys like Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz are up to their eyes in Saddam's crimes as well. And they are the ones supplying the Shia mob with the rope (in fact, Dick Cheney was so concerned about Saddam's crimes, he continued to do business with him while running Haliburton up until the late 90's, in contravention of US law and the UN sanctions. And with Quaddafi in Lybia as well).

So while I dislike Saddam, if he is to suffer the ultimate judgment for his actions, then so should those who created him and enabled his reign of terror. They are just as guilty.

I find it bitterly ironic and telling that many of those that are this week cheering and dancing with delight over Saddam's execution are the same people who openly praised and apologized for Pinochet upon his death. The lessons of Saddam (and Pinochet) should have been that brutal dictators and those that help them will be brought to justice. It should have been that supporting brutal dictators for supposed short-term US national interest is a bad idea in the long term interests of everyone, including the US. Instead it seems to be that brutal dictators can do what they want, as long as they implement favourable, right-wing economic policies and let American companies make lots of money. Oh and aren't "Communists." But cross the US and you get yours.

In the end, the people of Iraq continue to die.

No wonder libertarians compare the state and government to the Mafia...

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At 1:14 AM, Blogger Olaf said...


I'm quite pleased to see you're back at it (so I can finally add you to the blogroll, which should guarantee you all of one hit a day - from me). And thanks for the link - that being said, I would be remiss to not comment on your post:

Quite simply I do not trust the state to exercise the power of life and death over citizens, not when there is the possibility of even one innocent man being executed. The death penalty is most often used by brutal dictators like Saddam to oppress and terrorize their people. So I cannot support the death penalty even for Saddam.

So because some people may be innocently executed, you can't support the execution of someone you yourself have condemned as guilty?

I mean, there is always the possibility, if you support jailing criminals, that some innocent criminal may be jailed. Even for life, which is arguably more painful for that person and their family than being executed.

Wouldn't that suggest that any punishment may be illegitimate in principle, even where you (and everyone else, and irrefutable evidence) agrees that an individual is guilty?

If justice as enacted against Saddam is so fallible, wouldn't the cruel justice in sentencing an individual like Saddam to life in prison be equally fallible, and equally illegitimate?

Again, despite the angle I take, I'm not necessarily in favour of the death penalty in principle. However, I'm not sure that the death penalty is any less humane or civilized than locking someone in prison, to be subjected to the horrors therein, for life. If justice (as enacted in Canada, or the US, or Iraq) can be fallible, even where you with all your skepticism and accomplices, may agree that someone is guilty, isn't it equally unjust in all other circumstances?

Why is jailing someone for life (or even for 25 years) who is found guilty of murder any more just than executing that person? Both could possibly be innocent (even if you yourself deem them guilty).

Simply, I ask that you draw the line where the punishment of a possibly innocent person is considered just, and where it is criminally unjust.

At 1:27 AM, Blogger Olaf said...


I missed a few things in my haste,

Firstly, whether or not the United States is culpable bares no relevance on whether or not Saddam is culpable. They can both be culpable simultaneously, and while I don't object to you using the Saddam execution as a jumping off point for you elucidating your audience on the allegedly criminal actions of the United States (it's your blog after all), I object to the idea that the collaboration or consultation of the United States makes Saddam any more or less guilty.

As a side note, I almost feel weird making this point, since we've already gone through all this at my place, but (so long as you don't object) I thought it might be good to get the conversation started over here as well, since there's nothing that inquisitive minds appreciate more than a debate, no matter how often it is played out.

And secondly, as I clarified at Closet Liberals place, the reason that I'm against reinstating capital punishment in Canada is for the exact reason you cite (an innocent person may be executed before they have the chance to clear their name).

Now, before you criticize me of being inconsistent (which, unfortunately, I often leave myself open to) while I recognize that an innocent person may be convicted in Canada for a single murder they didn't commit, I don't consider Saddam likely of being framed or otherwise wrongly convicted, which is why I am not against Iraqis deciding to execute him. If there was even a single doubt in my mind that he wasn't the dictator that killed tens (hundreds? thousands?) of thousands of Iraqis, I may give it a second thought.

At 9:02 AM, Blogger Mike said...


Thanks for the link.

The difference between a life sentence and the death penalty is that a life sentence can be appealed. I can sit in jail for 23 years and be found innocent and be freed (and possibly get compensated). Not so with the death penalty. You might note that the last man hung in Canada in 1961 was later discovered to be innocent.

Further, I should explain that I am against the death penalty because I don't believe one human has the right to take the life of another, except in the rare circumstance of immediate self-defense to protect their life or the life of another. My only criteria for this is being a sentient human. Like it or not, Saddam was human.

For me its a moral principle. Others may not share that principle and well, that's their choice.

I don't think that the US involvement makes Saddam more or less culpable. I am merely pointing out that they are, as you say, simultaneously culpable. They enabled and aided Saddam. As I stated at your place, Paul Bernardo is culpable, but Karly-curls is just as culpable because she helped him, didn't say anything or do anything to help those girls and even took part in some of the "activities". Now imagine if she not only got no jail time, but acted as the Crown Attorney to prosecute Bernardo. The outcry would be enormous. The situation with the US and Iraq is parallel.

I am not trying to excuse Saddam in anyway. What I am trying to do is to sound the alarm, to ensure that justice for these crimes is brought to ALL involved. The US is a great country and has a great people (I have relatives in Arkansas), but they have a nasty habit of, as I pointed out, backing vicious dictators for short-term gain and interest or to match the 'ideology du jour.' And as Saddam, Osama and Pinochet demonstrate, the blow back both to the US and others is enormous. Unless those who make these decisions and decided to support dictators are made to answer for the decisions and be punished, the keep doing it.

As they have in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Iran (1954 and 1979), Iraq (pick any date after 1963), Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan in the 80' get the picture.

If Saddam was brought to justice for these crimes, so should the others, like Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz etc

At 3:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No Heaven, No Hell. Just Science and Reason.
"I don't believe one human has the right to take the life of another"

How did you arrive at this belief based on science and reason?
This may be a dumb ass question but it is not a smart ass question.

At 3:38 PM, Blogger Mike said...

From things like The Evolution of Cooperation, from scientific studies indicating altruism is the better strategy for survival of the genes (give the mp3 a listen).

Quite frankly, I am more likely to survive, as are my kin and my genes, if I respect human life, rather than take it.

In short, I am a product of the biological, evolutionary basis of morals and ethics - they are the better survival strategy and people and groups that most exhibit these behaviours are able to live and spread ensure the survival and reproduction of their genes to subsequent generations.

Evolution in Action, baby.

Also, as a human, I observed human behaviour and made a decision about this based on my experience and knowledge. So it is also my personal choice.

How did you arrive at that conclusion without reason?

At 7:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply Mike
I will read the information that you pointed me to. To try and answer your question the conclusion I have at this time through reason is that it is OK for a society to execute people like Saddam or Clifford Olsen or Paul Bernardo.
I think that for me to come to the conclusion that it is not OK would require an act of faith somewhere in the process.
I remember reading about a theoretical species plagued by a deadly parasite. The only way to get rid of the parasites was through constant grooming. To be effective the grooming had to be done by another member of the species. This species had three approaches to the requirement. The first group would always groom any member of the species whether the grooming was reciprocated or not. The second group would never reciprocate a grooming. The third group would never groom an individual from the second group more than once i.e. sentenced them to death if there were no surviving members of group 1.
The scenario could be run with different proportions of starting membership in each group. The third group most frequently succeeded and the first group most often failed.
I can't see any possible evolutionary benefit to a species in preserving the life of a member that preys on its own members - unless there are no other real predators - oh wait a minute that would be us.
Now I see.

At 7:49 PM, Blogger Mike said...

"I can't see any possible evolutionary benefit to a species in preserving the life of a member that preys on its own members"

Well, that you don't see it does not mean it does not exist. Your hypothetical is cute, but nothing more than that - a hypothetical video game.

The link I provided demonstrates evolutionary altruism where individuals give up their own lives to save others. These are real animals not simplistic hypothetical and demonstrates that not killing and, indeed, giving up ones life, actually provides evolutionary benefit.

By your logic, in order to rid society of those that prey on others, you must prey on others. Which means you never rid your society of those that prey on others.

Having seen lots of wasted human life - by accidents, negligence, war and even murder - I personally find life to be too precious to take it away, even from those who do not share my respect. Again, no faith involved. No hypothetically. Statistically, I am correct. 6 billion people on earth and most get along, don't kill each other and cooperate.

Clearly you don't believe killing to be wrong, since you are willing to indulge in it.

At 7:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read the Evolution of Cooperation article and I remember the Prisoners Dilemma. The most successful strategy was tit for tat which puts us back at an eye for an eye.
I can't listen to the other reference but I do love Quirks and Quarks. I'm not sure how altruism would apply in any case.
Thanks anyway

At 8:53 PM, Blogger Mike said...


You ought to really read the book, because you have missed the point - cooperation and peaceful coexistence (ie, not killing each other) provide a better strategy for survival than the cartoon version of "survival of the fittest" we see - the strong killing the weak whenever they please.

The Quirks and Quarks episode makes the same point from a different perspective.

Essentially it goes like this:

The point of evolution is not "survival of the fittest" but survival of those that can best adapt to change in the environment. One of the best way to ensure survival is to ensure that your genes survive to the next generation. They may not be your direct genes, but those of your kin - even if I do not reproduce, if I ensure my cousin or nephew or aunt survive, at least a portion of my genes survive to the next generation.

Now, those who are aggressive and kill, steal or maim are less likely to be able to mate to propagate their genes to the future. They are less like then to have large kin groups. This all means that they are less likely to have their genes, either directly or through kin, survive.

Not a good survival strategy.

Cooperations, on the other hand, increases opportunities to mate and reproduce, creates a larger kin group and a better chance that the genes will make it to next generation. The gene pool is also further diversified, agian, making for a health pool and increasing chances of survival.

Cooperative groups are then more likely to survive changes in the environment and pass on their genetic structure.

Now, none of this is to say that all aggression is bad. The study Q and Q refers to indicates that there is a balance of aggressive and cooperative individuals with in society (indeed within individuals). But cooperation is still the better survival strategy.

Sorry for the long winded answer. You may also want to check this out:

At 9:58 PM, Blogger James Bow said...

Ultimately I agree with you, Mike, though I pretty much figure Saddam is an internal matter for Iraq and they should be allowed to make their own decisions on this one. But I still share your disquiet over the death penalty.

In response to Olaf's question in his first comment: yes, that basically sums it up. Yes, ideally the justice system should be convicting only those individuals who were guilty, and the individual that was sent to prison for life for a crime he did not commit is the victim of as much injustice as the individual who is hanged for a crime he did not commit. But at least with the lifer, we can rectify the mistake and give him back some semblance of his life.

Our society values, above all else, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (even if we cloak it in statements of peace, order and good government), and our justice system should only act in the protection of these three values, IN THAT ORDER. These rights belong to all, especially the least among us. We do not take these away except in the most special circumstances.

So, when the justice system convicts a criminal, we should assess the punishment in terms of whether or not society is protected, while keeping an eye to maintaining life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as much as possible. Taking away the criminal's liberty protects society almost as much as taking away the criminal's life, so we do not need to take that extra step.

Society should be very, very unwilling to take away rights, even from individuals who frankly do not deserve them. Because once we make it easier for the least among us, this increases the threat for the rest of us. It should be very difficult for society to infringe upon an individual's liberty. Life even moreso.

At 10:03 PM, Blogger Mike said...

And that is why James Bow is a writer and I am not.

Well said James, thank you.


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