Anyone who did not kick up his heels at news of Saddam Hussein’s hanging is, in my opinion, morally deficient. Indeed if there is anything distressing about his demise it is that someone who sadistically tortured so many human beings during his lifetime enjoyed a relatively painless death. I would have been even happier had he been drawn and quartered, or better yet somehow contrived to fall into one of those meat grinders into which he and his equally sadistic sons were pleased to drop so many of his subjects.
No, I would not personally have competed with the thousands of Iraqis eager to be Saddam’s executioner. My feelings have nothing to do with bloodlust. Ultimately there can be little satisfaction in Saddam’s execution. The taking of the life of such an evil man is totally incommensurate with the hundreds of thousands of human beings killed on his orders – hundreds by his own hand – and the more than a million lives lost as a consequence of his eight year war with Iran. And it came far too late – when he had long lost the power of life and death over more than 20,000,000 Iraqis.
So why do I nevertheless feel some small measure of satisfaction at news of his execution. The answer to that lies in the Torah view of nekamah (vengeance), as explained by the late Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz in his Sichos Mussar.
Almost without exception, the term nekamah appears in Tanach in conjunction with G-d’s name. "Great is vengeance," say our Sages, "because it has been placed between two names of God, as it says in the verse `The Lord is the God of vengeance’ (Tehillim 94:1)." (Berachos 33a)
The association of vengeance with G-d’s name makes clear that vengeance has nothing to do with revenge, the natural human desire to hurt those we perceive as having injured us. Rather vengeance is a manifestation of the Divine in history, God’s revelation of Himself as the dispenser of justice.
As the Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 23:1) puts it, the Divine throne only became firmly established in the world when the Jewish people sang God’s praises at the Sea. Their joyous song was a consequence of watching the precision with which the suffering of each drowning Egyptian was meted out: The Egyptians either died instantaneously or slowly and painfully according to the degree with which they had afflicted the Jews in Egypt.
Divine vengeance, then, is the righting of an imbalance in the world, and refers equally to the punishment of the wicked and the reward of the righteous. When we merit witnessing the enactment of justice, our belief that there is both Justice and a Judge is strengthened.
NEEDLESS TO SAY much of the world does not quite see matters this way. We not need long delay over the hyperbole of Russian xenophobe and former partner in Saddam’s oil scams, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who called his execution, "the crime of the 21st century" or the expressions of grief from Hamas and the Palestinian street over the loss of one who offered generous bounties to the families of those who carried out suicide bombings against Jews. But even the European Union and its member states were quick to condemn Saddam’s execution and express their repugnance at imposition of the death penalty. By the same reasoning, incidentally, they would also have condemned the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals.
Tim Hames, writing in the The Times of London, went so far as to proclaim Saddam’s execution "as ethically tainted as the crimes that produced that sentence." What, one wonders, could Mr. Hames possibly mean? Nearly 300,000 Iraqis disappeared during the 23 years of Saddam’s regime – that is more than 12,000 a year, 240 a week. And that number does not even include the hundreds of Iraqi athletes crippled and maimed for life in Udai Husseins’s torture chambers for failing to bring sufficient glory to the regime. The 5,000 Kurdish villagers killed and 10,000 more severely injured by poisonous gas in one attack at Saddam’s orders had no trial or opportunity to defend themselves.
Saddam did. Yet he scarcely contested the facts arrayed against him at trial; nor once did he evince the slightest remorse for any of his deeds. Where is the moral equivalence here?
As a Torah Jew, the imposition of capital punishment against Hussein for his uncontested crimes, troubles me not a whit. Even before the giving of Torah, Hashem announced this iron rule: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of G-d He made man (Bereishis 9:6)."
But even on their own terms, those who pronounce capital punishment wrong in every case, an abomination, anachronistic, and the like, are not so much engaging in philosophical argument, as they are narcissistically patting themselves on the back for their own moral superiority.
They should not be so quick to congratulate themselves. What they are manifesting is not superior humanity, but an inhuman coldness, an inability to enter imaginatively into the world of Saddam’s victims and to contemplate the true nature of his evil. They refuse to let themselves dwell on what it is like to be a parent forced to watch your child tortured to extract your "confession," what it is like to spend your entire life afraid to enter into an intimate conversation with another human being for fear that he or she might be one of Saddam’s informer, what it is like to have parents, siblings, or children taken away in the middle of the night never to be seen again. And then multiply such scenarios millions of times of over.
What is lost in the pat equation of Saddam’s life with those of his victims is a horror at evil. And that loss of horror paves the way for further evil. The West has suffered greatly in recent decades from perverse moral equivalences – e.g., Soviet imperialism and the cultural imperialism of Hollywood. And the equation of the trial and execution of Saddam with the murder of his victims is but one more example.
Yale computer scientist David Gelerntner, who had a bomb sent by the Unabomber blow up in his face, put the matter well in his book Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber: It is through capital punishment of murders – and not by running to forgive them – that we as a society "show our respect for the dead and proclaim the value of human life."
LAST WEEK, the Vatican termed Saddam’s execution "tragic." The same week Pope Benedict XVII met with the Iranian Foreign Minister, who had just played a lead role in organizing the Holocaust denial conference, and asked him to pay his warm regards to Ahmadinejad, who not only denies the last Holocaust but boasts of his plans for the next.
The consanguinity is not accidental. Rather the two go hand in hand. The lack of moral clarity manifest in the too ready sympathy for the unrepentant Saddam is of a piece with a lack of moral clarity in the extension of regards to Ahmadinejad. Of this our Sages spoke when they said, "He who is merciful when he should be cruel will end up being cruel when he should be merciful (Koheles Rabbah 7:16)."
Various Christian churches have long prided on themselves on their capacity for forgiveness, and contrasted it to the Jewish attitude. In this vein, the response of the Amish community to the murder of five little girls and the serious wounding of 10 others gained much national attention. At the funeral for one of the victims, her grandfather said, "We must not think evil of this man of this man." The neighbors and friends of the victims’ families professed to feel no hatred towards the perpetrator.
Unlike the cheap forgiveness or sympathy of the Vatican for Saddam, the response of the Amish does have a certain moral grandeur. They, at least, were offering forgiveness to the perpetrator of a tragedy from which they too suffered personally, not one inflicted on those far removed from them, as the Vatican did.
Yet as Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb of Baltimore and Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby both argued after the Amish tragedy, the response of the Amish was profoundly removed from the Torah response. Rabbi Gottlieb noted that even Hashem Himself does not forgive sins committed against a fellow human being until the victim’s forgiveness has been secured. Surely no human being has the power to forgive crimes against another, and all the more so when no forgiveness has been sought.
There is, Jacoby reminds us, quoting Koheles, also "a time to hate." Would we really wish to live, he asks, in a society in which no one gets angry when children are slaughtered, a society in which there is an instantaneous dispensation for the most horrific acts of cruelty?
I would not. And that is why I was glad to see Saddam hanging at the end of noose.