Saddam Dead

For months now, my students have been submitting reviews of one film/book: 우리들? 행복한 시간 (Our Happy Time), which is, I’ve basically taken from their reviews and discussions, the Korean version of Dead Man Walking. The death penalty in (South) Korea exists but hasn’t been used for some time now, and this movie seems to have young people convinced it should be abolished.

What’s interesting is that I ended up objecting to the arguments the students made, because in general they were either sentimental, or based on non-demonstrable assumptions, or what have you.

If the death penalty is wrong, it’s not wrong because people might change — if it’s predicated on change, if change is the most important thing, the death penalty probably brings about more change than life imprisonment ever would. It’s not wrong because some people facing the death penalty evoke our sympathy, because sympathy and compassion are fickle things, not suitable for judging the morality and immorality of a justice system’s available responses to a crime.

I said that I disagreed with the arguments they advanced; and yet, I too don’t feel that a death penalty is something a civilized society levies of its criminals, even its worst ones.

Yet as I read Ritu’s post, rparvaaz: What I learned from Saddam Hussein, I found myself considering that, in fact, emotion does need to enter into the question. If an act is proscribed, it makes no sense for the society that proscribes it to then use it as a punishment. That it does stirs a kind of shock and disorder in people. We can sense an inner contradiction. Some people have neither the logic nor the emotional coherence to sense this.

Am I weeping for Saddam? No, I think he was a bastard. But to celebrate an execution… it still shocks me.

3 thoughts on “Saddam Dead

  1. “If an act is proscribed, it makes no sense for the society that proscribes it to then use it as a punishment.”

    I’m not sure I buy that line of reasoning. It is against the law (i.e., proscribed) to confine someone against their will, and yet the most common form of punishment is jailing. To kick things up a notch, solitary confinement is, by most civilized standards, extremely cruel and inhumane, yet it is used as punishment. Many, if not most, forms of punishment for serious crimes are illegal outside of their function as punishment of criminal behavior. (Certain forms of punishment, like fines and community service, would be exceptions, but these are only implemented for less serious crimes.) The death penalty simply happens to be the most severe. If you’re going to argue against the death penalty on these grounds, where will you draw the line?


    I have to reply here: my Uni’s hare-brained security system is blocking access to the commenting script on my own damned site! Argh!

    Hmm. I think you have a point there, actually. Drawing the line at irreversibility doesn’t make sense because loss of time is also irreversible. Monetary penalties for all crimes would be reversible, but don’t seem adequate for the more serious ones. (And by the way, I think fining is probably far more common than jailing as far as punishments go.)

    And I think that’s where the death penalty differs from other non-reversible normally-proscribed consequences. To confine someone against their will is under normal circumstances, but it serves a few different functions at once, at least in theory:

    • It punishes or, in theory, rehabilitates the offender
    • It prevents repeat offenses., at least for the period during which the offender is imprisoned.

    We can discuss the first point at length — I’m not convinced the penitentiary system doesn’t produce worse criminals, but I’m hard-pressed to find a better solution to the question of what to do with serious offenders, while also dismayed at how they form such a huge slave workforce in the US, and dismayed at the racial demographics both in Canada and the US, and so on — but the second point is pretty much unassailable.

    The fact is that jailing exists, in a sense, as a precarious balancing point somewhere between total and permanent eradication of the offender’s ability to offend again (death, which serves the public’s interests but not the offender’s by denying him a chance to be rehabilitated), and counting on rehabilitation via lesser discipline (which serves the interests of the offender, but does nothing to serve or protect the interests of the public).

    Given that the legal system exists as a balance between these two interests, the question of where to draw the line is easier to answer.

    Killing a prisoner eradicates the offender’s ability to offend no more than would life in maximum-security prison. Even if we believe that the prisoner cannot be rehabilitated, killing him serves our interests and protects us no more than does imprisoning him for life (and giving him work to do to cover the cost of imprisonment). The death penalty is no more effective in any tangible way than life imprisonment, except that it serves as an emotional outlet. Some people feel better when the bad guy is dead.

    And in society, we proscribe discipline that is excessive to the goals of the disciplinary act. This, surely, should apply to our most over-reaching disciplinary system as well, should it not?

  2. Your updated argument holds water much better. I won’t attempt to argue against it because I think we both know that this could go on forever.

    As to where I stand… well, I’m not sure. I suppose it all depends on whether or not you view the penal system more as a means of protecting citizens from criminals or more as a means of punishing criminals for their crimes. And even if I can understand some of the arguments for the death penalty, could I ever pull the plug on someone myself? If not, is it right to let someone else do it for me? I am conflicted on the issue. I don’t think there is an easy answer.

    (Oh, and you’re probably right that fines are more common because misdemeanors warranting fines are probably more common than felonies. I guess what I was trying to say was that jailing is the most common form of punishment for serious crimes–since serious crimes are what we are discussing here.)

  3. Charles,

    Yeah. You know, the one book by Foucault that I will stand by without hesitation is Discipline and Punish, because, basically, I think he hit the nail on the head in it. Penal systems seem to me, as in Foucault’s text, all about a kind of regulatory quarantine with elements of experimental observation thrown in, but it’s also obvious that there’s a depoliticizing aspect to them. The overrepresentation of certain segments of populations, especially in terms of race, suggests as much.

    As for execution… yeah, I dunno. I think it’s probably surprisingly, shockingly, horrifyingly easy for one to do executions, after that first one. The first one requires you to dehumanize the prisoner to the point where you can justify to yourself the act of killing him or her. After that, you’ve got a vested interest in maintaining that stance, so more executions may be less difficult to perform.

    Is it right to get someone else to do it? Hmm, difficult question. Which also raises the question of deferred responsibility in general. I don’t think I could kill a cow, face to face. Maybe not even a chicken. Of course, for some people its easy. How wrong is it for me to have them do it for me? How wrong is it to get someone to do something like fix my clothes for a pittance? Complex question, made more complex by my own selfishness.

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