Crimes against humanity

“Saddam Hanged,” the headline read, adding that U.S. forces were on high alert. The news stopped me—in one of those rare times that a newspaper headline got the news out first. I realized I hadn’t been getting my regular dose of radio/TV news. Rather, we had enjoyed my daughter’s i-Pod playlist on the road trip from the city, and the last TV I saw was the Yule log on Channel 11 on Christmas day. I was out of touch, I guess you’d say.

So it was a shock to see that the death sentence had been carried out, and so swiftly.

There is no love lost between me and Saddam, mind you. Put down your pens, o letter-writers, ye of little faith.

But, hanged. I could not get the image (as yet untelevised, thank God) out of my head. This was a man who just weeks ago vigorously denounced his accusers in court. A man who was clearly full of life, however misguided, and full of the desire to continue to live, even in captivity. Most of us cannot imagine a life spent in captivity, but, if we could, we would certainly choose it over the alternative of death. (Unless we’re from New Hampshire, where the constant barrage of Presidential primaries has instilled a zealous brand of liberty, foreign to most of us. “LIVE FREE OR DIE,” reads the New Hamphire license plate motto.)

Anyway, the news of the dictator’s death came as a shock to my system. It was yet more evidence of the brutality of our world. The brutality we still hold on to, even in our “enlightened age.” I was embarrassed to tell my children this news, knowing it was done in my name, and theirs, too. Murder was once again on our hands. My daughter was appropriately outraged, I am grateful to say.

I remember the first time I had to explain the concept of capital punishment to her, and watch the disintegration of hope in her eyes. It was clear to me that in that instant, she lost faith in the infallibility of grown-ups. Up to that point she had always expected them to do what was right. Or at least to know right from wrong.

In our city neighborhood, I regularly pass by posters on lamp posts that proclaim the innocence of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the convicted cop-killer who has lived on death row for 25 years. Sentenced to die at the hands of the state, he has enjoyed life behind bars—a brutal life, no doubt, with fear engraved in every moment, but life, with the relative freedom to think and dream and write and work and imagine, maybe even to love. Who would not choose that, over hanging?

But Mumia proclaims he is innocent. There seems little doubt that Saddam was guilty of mass murder and torture. Should my rigid sense of propriety regarding the death sentence yield to such strong evidence of guilt? But it’s not just the fear of the all-too-common fallibility of man that convinces me death-by-state is wrong. And it is not fear of retribution that fuels my distaste for this crime against humanity known as execution. It is the utter lack of respect for life, for life outside human control, that disturbs me. That we think we know enough to take a life is a kind of hubris I find deplorable.

- Cass Collins