Americans cheered enthusiastically last week for President Ford, who pardoned Richard Nixon. Simultaneously they celebrated the fact that President Bush did not insist on pardoning Saddam Hussein -- in fact didn't even think of it. Those who wanted Nixon behind bars only wanted revenge. Those who wanted to see Saddam attached to a rope just before he died were not seeking revenge.
He was once our man in the Mideast, the Republican Party's man. Indeed American Republican intelligence services provided support for his killing of Kurds and Shiites before the first Gulf War. Should those American leaders who supported such efforts be put on trial and hanged?
The present incumbent of the White House often spoke of his personal anger at the Iraqi president. Well, now he has had his revenge, not that it does him much good.
Those who take the Christian scripture seriously must believe the words of God in the epistle to the Romans, "Revenge is mine, says the Lord, I shall repay!" God claims a monopoly on revenge, but the need for it is a powerful human passion. Many of the relatives of victims at the time of American executions tell us that the death of the hated person brings closure. In fact it is only a hollow closure that cannot endure. Many countries reject the death penalty as unworthy of humans. They are right, and the United States is wrong.
The papacy has been leading Catholics in that direction during recent decades. Thus the pope's "foreign minister" Cardinal Martino and his official spokesman Richardo Lombardi spoke out against the execution of Saddam, the former saying that it was a crime following another crime and the state has no right to kill a human being. It's interesting that so many devout "papal Catholics" feel free to dismiss this teaching. It is also interesting that so many evangelical Protestants also feel free to ignore it -- including our president.
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Does that mean mass murderers should go unpunished? Should Saddam have been freed to kill more thousands? Certainly not, no more than Nixon should have gone unpunished for his crimes against the Constitution. Nixon should have gone to prison; Saddam should have spent the rest of his life in an American jail -- to protect the world from him.
It was the Iraqi government that hanged him, it may be argued. He was captured by American troops, kept in an American prison and led to the gallows by American guards. The Iraqi government is still a pathetic creature of American military might. Perhaps many Iraqis were glad to see him dead. Yet those who were not can claim with good reason that the Americans killed him. It would be foolish and presumptuous to assume that Arabs will not try to kill an American president. Revenge and more revenge and yet more revenge.
The English, who have had a long history of hanging those who caused trouble in their colonies (including Ireland), are properly horrified at the barbarism of American executions. They have come to understand what Cardinal Martino said about the state taking human life. Why do Americans not perceive the same truth? Are we still barbarians? Or does the troubled history of killing African Americans and Native Americans and hanging horse thieves and cattle rustlers in the Old West still make us a bloody-minded people? Why did so many of us rejoice in the killing of Saddam? Why were so few evangelical voices in this country raised against it -- with the notable exception of the voice of Rev. Jesse Jackson?
Should not the Nazi and Japanese leaders have been executed after World War II? If we believe revenge is justified and that it is not a monopoly of the Lord's, we would say yes. Would the rest of his life in prison for Hitler, should he have been captured, not been a better punishment? From the perspective of the present, only the most bloody-minded would say no.
Our president has the "regime change" that was the rationale for the war. Now he proposes to send tens of thousands more American troops to continue it. How many more on both sides will have to die for no other reason than his need for victory?