The Search For Justice
By now you have no doubt heard or read that Saddam Hussein was hanged in Iraq. The death sentence that had been passed from the courts during his first trial was carried out, after one last appeal for a retrial on legal grounds of inappropriate conduct and/or incorrect application of law and evidence or request for clemency was rejected.
I am struggling, frankly, to decide how I feel about all of this in the wake of the swiftness of the appeals process. To be honest, Saddam Hussein was a murderous tyrant who terrorized the population of Iraq, including members of his own family, for reasons that only he in his madness and anger understood. People were brutally tortured and murdered at his command, often for very minor offenses. He was a brute and an altogether evil human being. Having spent time as a prosecutor, and as defense counsel, for folks who fit part of that description, and knowing that there are some people who are not fit to walk freely among the rest of us — truly, and honestly, not fit nor safe under just about any circumstances — I can see the argument for the death penalty for someone such as Hussein.
But I cannot be comfortable with it. For some reason, no matter that I know what horrors he committed over the years, this does not sit well with me.
Perhaps it is the rush of the appeals process. Perhaps it is the mess of a trial, the fundamental questions as to whether true due process could ever have been achieved under circumstances such as this. Perhaps it is the whispers of the heavy thumb on the scales of justice that the US is said to have weighed in with in this particular case, or the questions of the verdict being assured from the start. Certainly there is more than enough evidence out there that Saddam Hussein ought to have been convicted, but to do so through a trial where the circumstances were not all open, above-board and as beyond reproach as anyone could ever muster makes me uncomfortable, to say the least.
Perhaps the issue for me is the seeming lack of any empathy, even for a monster like Saddam Hussein. I have asked for other human beings to be sent to the penitentiary for the rest of their long lives, sometimes very young people facing a very long life in a dank hole with barely a window and a whole lot of violence. These were people who deserved such punishment in my evaluation of the evidence and their potential to do even more harm were they free. But I never, ever did so lightly, and never without some pang of remorse for having to do so — no matter the long string of evil that the person had done.
To be involved in such a case is personally painful. On the one side, you see the family of the victim(s) involved, their pain, their anguish, their longstanding anger at the person who committed the crime against their loved one. On the other, you see that same pain and anguish, but for different reasons entirely, in the family of the accused — trying to make sense of the violence and horror that their loved one has committed, and never quite being able to reconcile the child they remember and the evil that they have become.
It is a horrible moment, that first time that the families meet eyes in the courtroom, the tension, the anger, the pain, all comingling in the brief glances or the avid stares; the accused's family fighting between the pity and horror of what has been done, and the wretched anguish of the punishment that may be meted out — and the desperate, clinging hope that whatever the evidence, that it will not be found to point toward their child, their brother, their friend. The family of the victim simply stares back, willing some answer as to how the seemingly decent folks across the room could have raised such a monster, and desperately wishing that their lost loved one would come walking through the courtroom door once more, but knowing in their heart of hearts that it will never be.
It is never easy, nor should it be. Mercifully, for my conscience, WV is not a death penalty state. I think that may have been more than I could have wrestled with, to be completely honest about it, the fear always being that you get it wrong — somehow, in all of the evidence evaluation and all of the days of investigation and review, that you still, somehow get it wrong. To do so in a case where someone was killed in the name of justice would have been unbearable.
I have always understood the celebration at a guilty verdict and tough sentence on the part of the victims' family. There is a need for some form of closure, some retribution, something to happen to the person who has taken the life of the person that you loved with all your heart. It's human nature. And it is human nature as the person requesting that verdict to feel pride in achieving that result.
But I never did so in any case without a comperable feeling of loss — that this person, no matter how horrible, how evil, how heinous their crime, no matter the hours that I put in on autopsy photos and tracking back their criminal history, no matter how well deserved and necessary, that this broken, lost soul was to be locked away. It should never be easy. (Of course, I say this from the comfort of my home state, having never had to face the murderous evil of a serial killer through the course of my career, and I imagine that may have been a different level of evaluation on my part, had that occurred.)
Perhaps it was because, in the digging and investigation, you so often got a glimpse of the horrible childhood, the physical and emotional abuse, the abandonment, the stark realities of life that came crashing in on that person at such a young age — which was never, ever an excuse for the conduct — EVER — but did explain, on some level, why the person was so irretrievably broken in those occasions where long-term incarceration seemed the only and best answer for the rest of society's benefit.
As I read through the news articles on the Saddam hanging this morning, it was that lack of human compassion, even on any level, that struck me as somehow unseemly, as undignified and as uncivilized, barbaric even. That feeling of someone being thrown to the lions, no matter how deserving of punishment, while the masses look on and cheer at the tearing from limb to limb — the disgusting spectacle of bread and circuses, set to a theme song and a hasty graphics design on the 24-hour news networks.
And then I found the article that John Burns did for the NYTimes, and I understood what it was that I had been looking for — some sense of the whole of the story, not just its disperate parts. Burns has been covering the Middle East and, in particular, Iraq, for over a decade now, and his pieces never fail to illuminate some aspect of the culture or the people involved in a way that I had not thought of before. I love his prose, his eloquent writing voice but, in this article in particular, it is the balance of all the disperate threads into a bumpy, ill-weaved whole that finally brings together the story for me.
It is this portion that really brings the dichotomy of the situation into full, stark view:
…From 20 feet away on an observer’s bench, seated beside the late Peter Jennings of ABC News and Christiane Amanpour of CNN, I caught my first glimpse of the man who had become in my years of visiting Iraq under his rule, a figure of mythic brutality, a man so feared that the mention of his name would set the hard, unsmiling men assigned to visiting reporters as “minders” to shaking with fear, and on one occasion, in my experience, to abject weeping.
But this was not that Saddam. The man who stepped into the court had the demeanor of a condemned man, his eyes swiveling left, then right, his gait unsteady, his curious, lisping voice raised to a tenor that resonated fear. Quickly, he fixed his gaze on the handful of foreigners in the court, and I had my own moment of anxiety when it came to my mind that he was intent on remembering the faces of the non-Iraqis that were there to witness his humiliation, perhaps to get word through to his lawyers, and then on to the insurgents, that we were to be punished for our intrusion. It was only later, after I learned what he had been told before being taken from his cell to the court, that I understood that our presence meant something else to him entirely, that with foreigners present, he was not going to be summarily hanged or shot.
THE Americans who were his jailers in the first days after his capture — aboard an American aircraft carrier and then at a converted detention center known as Camp Cropper at the edge of Baghdad’s airport — had chosen, on that summer day, to give Saddam a taste of the fear that he exhilarated in imposing on others. All he was told was that he was being taken “to face Iraqi justice.” Small wonder, as the architect of a quarter-century of repression, that he should fear that he was about to suffer the torture and grisly death that he had inflicted on so many others.
At that instant, I felt sorry for him, as a man in distress and perhaps, too, as a once almighty figure reduced to ignominy. But the expression of that pity to the Iraqis present marked the distance between those, like me, who had taken the measure of Saddam’s terror as a visitor, shielded from the worst of it by the minders and the claustrophobic world of closely guarded hotels and supervised Information Ministry trips, and Iraqis who lived through it with no shield.
That I could feel pity for him struck the Iraqis with whom I talked as evidence of a profound moral corruption. I came to understand how a Westerner used to the civilities of democracy and due process — even a reporter who thought he grasped the depths of Saddam’s depravity — fell short of the Iraqis’ sense, forged by years of brutality, of the power of his unmitigated evil….
The process of demanding someone's incarceration or, in this case, death by hanging, can be such a matter of perspective. Having stood with my feet on both sides of the legal aisle — as criminal defense counsel for a number of years and then as an assistant prosecutor, how you view the defendant can be very different on either side of the case — although not always, despite having to do your job with vigor as defense counsel regardless.
We have yet to discover what the long-term results of such a death will be. Perhaps they will be nothing, Saddam having been captured and his trial and its results having been a foregone conclusion in a lot of minds for quite a while now, although I suspect his hanging will have been a jolt to a number of his Ba'athist supporters who probably still suspected that Saddam Hussein would die of old age in prison rather than the government taking the chance of his hanging inciting more violence in an already war ravaged nation.
In my mind, though, the greater question is how this particular trial, this particular action and death will affect the long-term view of the United States as a true voice for justice and human rights, for which we have long been such an able voice in the international forum. If there are so many questions being asked about the conduct of the trial, the swiftness of the appeals process, the custody of the person being hanged, and on and on, will these questions ever be truly answered. And once they are, will they leave us in a good light.
I know that the argument should and will be made that this was an Iraqi trial, by a sovereign Iraqi government and judiciary system. But the trial and judges and attorneys, all of the person involved being constantly under threat of death throughout, were up to their robes in American judicial advisors. And, as such, I believe it was incumbent upon those advisors and our government to ensure the fairness of the proceedings to the fullest extent possible. The question is — did we do so?
And that answer, I am afraid, is the one that we will not get for a long time to come. And in the waiting for it to even be asked is the further consequence to our reputation as the guardians of justice. The search for any sort of justice does not come in the easy cases, the ones where you have a confession and a crime so heinous that the request for punishment comes as a relief to everyone involved, including the remorseful defendant.
The search for justice comes in the little actions, the difficult choices, the close cases, the ones where you have a difficult defendant who has committed heinous atrocities, and you still have the character and the moral standing to treat that person with the same standing as anyone else would be given under the rule of law. Was that the case for Saddam Hussein? History will long-from-now look back on this and judge it, kindly or harshly, but in the meantime, the world looks on and we will know their judgment soon enough. But it is my own doubts about our role in this process that are causing me to ask questions — and I am not certain that the answers will bring me much, if any, comfort.
But, search we all must, because that is our duty as citizens of this nation. For it is in the accounting of this and every other case that the true search for justices lies. Especially where those answers seem as difficult as these may be.
(Artwork is one in a series by Edwin Abbey.)