Hangman’s Justice


David Palmer’s British blood runs cold at the hanging of Saddam, and Evangelical Catholicism supports the Vatican’s line that the execution of Saddam Hussein accommplishes nothing. Jimmy Akin and Gerald Augustinus think justice has been done.

What does his execution accomplish? Is this really justice or is it revenge? C.S.Lewis has a very interesting essay on the underlying reason for any form of criminal punishment. He argues that society has various reasons for punishing criminals. Revenge is one reason. Rehabilitation is a second reason. Protecting the public from a monster is the third reason and just retribution is the fourth reason.

The first three reasons for punishment do not bring about justice, and lead very easily to an abuse of justice. Revenge merely perpetuates a cycle of violence and bitterness, and therefore perpetuates injustice on a massive scale. Rehabilitation is also a wrong foundational motive for judicial punishment, because if that is the only reason for incarceration you would logically have to keep the criminal locked up until he could prove that he was rehabilitated. Not only would this be a subjective judgment, but it may lead to a much longer prison sentence than would be just. Likewise, if protection of the public is the only reason for punishment, a criminal might be locked up forever–not because of the crime he had committed, but because he was a danger to the public. Therefore, revenge, rehabilitation and protection of the public are inadequate reasons for judicial punishment.

According to Lewis, just retribution remains the only foundation for a justice system that can be as objective as possible. In this scenario criminal A commits crime B and is given sentence C. This treats both the individual and his crime in a fair, objective and dignified way. The state authority could reserve capital punishment as the only fair and objective punishment for a particular crime, but for serious offenders life imprisonment must be the best way for a life to be yielded up in retribution.

They should have locked up Saddam, thrown away the key and given him nothing to eat but Froot Loops.

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Understanding Iraq

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  • Sean Gallagher

    But was locking up Saddam and throwing away the key truly possible in Iraq in its current state of instability, a state, mind you, that appears to be with us for a while?If it were truly possible, then I would agree with you.However, I could easily imagine a scenario where, after U.S. troops were significantly drawn down, supporters of Saddam might break him out of prison.The potential consequences of such an eventuality are frightening to consider.And given the instability of Iraq in general, which is likely the case in its penal system in particular as well, I think the execution of Saddam could be justified under the conditions laid out by Pope John Paul in ‘Evangelium Vitae’ and placed into the second edition of the Catechism.Mind you, I’m not necessarily convinced of this myself. However, I can admit that the argument has some possible validity to it.

  • They could have taken him to Guatanamo Bay and released the other guys they have held there illegally and without trial…

  • Yeah; I agree with you Dwight. All those who argue it would have been too difficult or too costly are in a sticky pickle now that the Maliki regime decided to uphold the Sharia sentence.

  • I have not decided how I feel about Saddam’s execution…and I will admit to praying Divine Mercy for him when I learned of his execution having taken place. His soul has always been in God’s hands, even as his life was in the court’s. Anyway, I have to take issue with your analysis of rehab via the justice system. This was my area of study and, having worked in the CJ system, I was actually surprised to see rehab at work. I worked as a Probation Officer (volunteer) for a couple years, entered with the impression of “punishment” versus “rehab”. Everyone I met with or whose file crossed my desk was being “punished” by the justice system. What amazed me was the actual rehab required by these people. There were “diversion” programs for those who showed a willingness to change their behavior, and I did witness many successes. I was at a meeting between a Probation Officer and a representative of a social program with one woman, and part of the conversation with her regarding her rehab…both criminally and her drug rehab. What her goals were…and what she had to lose. And the inducement to come to us if she relapsed rather than running away and making things worse for herself and the child she was trying to get back. There was an amazing amount of rehabilitation taking place. Granted, that was OUT of the lockup, but there are similar programs behind prison walls; they teach various programs to inmates who have never had a job..who have never had working parents and have never had an example beyond the criminal life. Some of these people leave the prison or jail and actually do well. There are social and religious programs. In my current profession I had a customer who was in jail. It was my priviledge, in spite of my inital reservations, to actually have a virtual front-row seat to his rehabilitation; from a life of drugs to a life of truly attempting to follow God. He actually gave me a testimony one day, amazed that I would even LISTEN to him. (Let’s just say that God told me to listen rather than following the protocol we needed to complete the investigation of the indident that lead to his file being assigned to me). I don’t think I’ll ever forget this guy. Rehab within the prison system IS possible and plausible without the extension of sentences…but as with all rehab, it does require a change of heart and a true spirit of conversion. For this reason, if you check out the statistics, those inmantes who are religious tend to be the ones who do well. Those who do not have God…well….I will say this; every success story I ever witnessed personally had to do with God. Every. Single. One. No exceptions. So if you take God out of the equation, then you are correct…there is no justice in rehab within the “justice system”. But when we allow and apply the teachings of Christ..well, Justice makes an amazing comeback. I just realized I’m not sure I have a point…..Anyway…have you read Father Walter Ciszek? If not, you should.

  • I wasn’t saying rehab was impossible or undesirable. I have done some prison work too, and I think rehab is an essential part of the regime. My point (echoing Lewis) is that rehab should not be the sole foundation principle for criminal justice. For justice to be enacted, objective retribution or ‘paying the price of my action’ should be the basic principle. The other aspects are important parts of the whole picture.

  • I think we’re in agreement, then. 🙂

  • Sean Gallagher

    Taking him to Guantanomo Bay would have been an interesting option. Cuba is at least as far away from Iraq as St. Helena was from France…However, it was the Iraqui government that tried and executed their former leader. And he could have only been sent to Guantanomo Bay with their permission, something that I suspect it would not have done and could not have been persuaded to do.

  • DGus

    Protection, deterrence, rehabilitation, and retribution are the four classic purposes of punishment that the West has always acknowledged. You learn about them in your Crim Law class in law school. JP2’s discussion of the death penalty (and the CCC) address only two of them. It is a very unsatisfactory treatment.If the death penalty has any place at all, it is for the punishment of a sadistic serial killer like Saddam. So to say that Saddam should not be executed is to say that no one should be. And that is plainly wrong. The current RC antipathy to the death penalty is very unfortunate. It would seem to partake of Marcion (i.e., the bad OT god is rejected in favor of Jesus’s nice NT Father). Extreme intellectual gymnastics are necessary to account even for the NT passages (e.g., Rom. 13) that approve of the death penalty.I have no doubt that the death penalty, when duly imposed, can contribute to all four purposes of punishment, including rehabilitation of the offender. For a fictional instance of it doing just that, see DEAD MAN WALKING. For a real-life instance, read about serial killer Ted Bundy. Bundy sneered at the police, the prosecutors, the judge, the jury, and the guards. It was only the prospect of the executioner that brought him up short and led finally to his professions of repentance, which I hope were sincere, but in any case were better than sneers.I hope that hanging helped Saddam to repent. It seems not to have, but the noose was probably his last hope of salvation. A life in a cell would not have had the necessary spiritual effect.

  • Surely the imminence of the noose or the prospect of rotting and a cell for life may prompt repentance and reform about equally.The condemned is motivated by the imminence of the next world. The incarcerated is motivated by the desire to improve what little bit of life he has in this world.Either way may prompt repentence and reform. Either way may not.

  • DGus

    God knows.

  • DGus