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I couldn't put my finger on what didn't feel right about the situation, but I find this to be an interesting viewpoint you don't see expressed around here, and about as close as I can come to explaining why I felt it was wrong.

Executing Saddam Hussein was an Act of Vandalism

by Richard Dawkins

The obvious objections to the execution of Saddam Hussein are valid and well aired. His death will provoke violent strife between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and between Iraqis in general and the American occupation forces. This was an opportunity to set the world a good example of civilized behaviour in dealing with a barbarically uncivilized man. In any case, revenge is an ignoble motive. The usual arguments against the death penalty in general apply. If Bush and Blair are eventually put on trial for war crimes, I shall not be among those pressing for them to be hanged. But I want to add another and less obvious reason why we should not have executed Saddam Hussein. His mind would have been a unique resource for historical, political and psychological research: a resource that is now forever unavailable to scholars.

Imagine, in fancy, that some science fiction equivalent of Simon Wiesenthal built a time machine, travelled back to 1945 and returned to the present with a manacled Adolf Hitler. What should we do with him? Execute him? No, a thousand times no. Historians squabbling over exactly what happened in the Third Reich and the Second World War would never forgive us for destroying the central witness to all the inside stories, and one of the pivotal influences on twentieth century history. Psychologists, struggling to understand how an individual human being could be so evil and so devastatingly effective at persuading others to join him, would give their eye teeth for such a rich research subject. Kill Hitler? You would have to be mad to do so. Yet that is undoubtedly what we would have done if he hadn't killed himself in 1945. Saddam Hussein is not in the same league as Hitler but, nevertheless, in a small way his execution represents a wanton and vandalistic destruction of important research data.

Saddam Hussein could have provided irreplaceable help to future historians of the Iran/Iraq war, of the invasion of Kuwait, and of the subsequent era of sanctions culminating in the current invasion. Uniquely privileged evidence on the American government's enthusiastic arming of Saddam before they switched loyalties is now snuffed out at the tug of a rope (no doubt to the relief of Donald Rumsfeld and other guilty parties – it is surely no accident that the trial of Saddam neglected those of his crimes that might – no, would – have implicated them).

Political scientists of the future, studying the processes by which unscrupulous leaders arise and take over national institutions, have now lost key evidence forever. But perhaps the most important research in which a living Saddam Hussein could have helped is psychological. Most people can't even come close to understanding how any man could be so cruel as Hitler or Saddam Hussein, or how such transparently evil monsters could secure sufficient support to take over an entire country. What were the formative influences on these men? Was it something in their childhood that turned them bad? In their genes? In their testosterone levels? Could the danger have been nipped in the bud by an alert psychiatrist before it was too late? How would Hitler, or Saddam Hussein have responded to a different style of education? We don't have a clear answer to these questions. We need to do the research.

Then again, are there lots of Saddams and lots of Hitlers in every society, but most of them end up as football hooligans wrecking trains rather than dictators wrecking countries? If so, what singles out the minority that do come to power? Or were men such as these truly unusual? What can we do to prevent them gaining power in the future? Are there changes we could make to our democratic and other political institutions that would make it harder for men of Hitler's or Saddam Hussein's psychological types to take them over?

These questions are not just academically fascinating but potentially of vital importance for our future. And they cannot be answered by prejudice or preconception or intuitive commonsense. The only way to answer them is by research. It is in the nature of research on ruthless national dictators that the sample size is small. Wasn't the judicial destruction of one of the very few research subjects we had – and a prime specimen at that – an act of vandalism?

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
bjbass
Jan. 4th, 2007 04:14 pm (UTC)
We should study Saddam Hussein? Like, interview him and ask him why he was such an awful person? Or strap him down and do experiments on him? Maybe we could learn from him by trying to reform him, like in A Clockwork Orange?

Why should we pretend that people like Hussein, or even Hitler, are so rare? We all knew kids on the playground who would have been just as cruel if they had had the opportunity and the brains to rise to that level of power.

In Cambodia, the government killed two million of their own people in a misguided attempt to change their society. The death toll in Somalia has been staggering. In Kosovo and Rwanda, groups of people who had lived together harmoniously for generations suddenly started killing each other in huge numbers. Stalin and Khruschev let millions starve when there was food available to feed them. In all these cases, from state leaders down to the individuals who decided to kill their neighbors, human life was simply not their top priority. Or was not a priority at all.

We see the same mindset in Iraq today, as "militants" kill civilians randomly in places like markets. Their goal is not to kill people, but to them killing is an acceptable means to attain power.

This is the norm. Biblical history tells the story over and over. When Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls come tumblin' down, when they came out of the desert after 40 years, Jericho surrendered, but they killed every man, woman, and child in Jericho, and even the livestock. And during those 40 years there was an incredible amount of bloodshed, often including massive executions after battles by the "thou shalt not kill" people.

There are basically only two reasons to oppose executions. One is that you think it's wrong. Two is that it makes you queasy and you just don't have the balls for it.

I'm guilty on both counts. Saddam Hussein killed an incredible number of people, and the world is a better place with him in the ground, but I don't think I could have pulled the lever. But I certainly don't think keeping him alive as some sort of science project would serve any purpose.
happinessiseasy
Jan. 4th, 2007 05:59 pm (UTC)
We all knew kids on the playground who would have been just as cruel if they had had the opportunity and the brains to rise to that level of power.

This is one of the points he addresses:

are there lots of Saddams and lots of Hitlers in every society, but most of them end up as football hooligans wrecking trains rather than dictators wrecking countries? If so, what singles out the minority that do come to power? Or were men such as these truly unusual? What can we do to prevent them gaining power in the future?

And I definitely don't think that it's "wrong" from a moral standpoint, but I definitely believe in reform. I think "science experiment" is dumbing it down a little. By helping him, I think we could've learned a lot. And maybe he could've become a valuable asset to help assuage Iraq's conflicts.

the world is a better place with him in the ground

Right, but it wasn't necessary to put him in the ground. We already had him incarcerated. I think the hanging might've made things worse, relative to his previous state.
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