Government sanction is not a defense

I thought about writing something about the execution of Saddam Hussein, but decided against it because I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say beyond the obvious. Saddam’s despicability doesn’t change my opposition to capital punishment. My reasons are based on my beliefs about government as much as they are on the ethics of condoned murder. I will lose no sleep over Saddam’s execution, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with it as a punishment. That I even feel compelled to write that last sentence is sign enough that too many capital punishment supporters (dare I say fans) would accuse me of sympathy for Saddam because I don’t believe we should’ve been complicit in his murder. Don’t we deplore murder?

Until today, I couldn’t find the words to explain why I can disagree, even with a figure so worthy of such a punishment as Saddam Hussein. The only drawback is that Jacob Sullum wrote the right words at Reason’s Hit & Run before I could express them. I’ll quote him here discussing the etiquette of what happened:

… I’m a little puzzled by the expectation that one really should be polite to a gentleman one is about to kill. …

No, the taunts bother people because they’re undignified and emotional, revealing too much about the true nature of the event, which is a dressed-up, cold-blooded version of vengeance, prescribed and limited by law. They bother people for the same reason we don’t have public executions anymore, with crowds gathering to jeer and cheer after a nice picnic lunch. But what is the right way to kill a man who deserves to be killed? Calmly, professionally, and rationally, or angrily and triumphantly, while shouting “die, motherfucker, die”?

That’s it exactly. We want to make the event solemn, more for us than the condemned. He is going to die and we’re going to take joy in the act. But we want to pretend that it’s just. It is not. We are complicit in murder, for no better reason than vengeance. It’s unpleasant and unbecoming of a civilized society, but at least be honest about it. I respect honesty. That would be an improvement over an unconvincing argument that execution is necessary without the threat of imminent danger.