"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

12.29.2006

rejoicing in plano

Saddam Hussein is dead.

This picture of Kurdish families in Plano is on the front page of the Dallas Morning News at the moment. They're happy. They're celebrating his execution.

If I were them, I'd probably be celebrating, too. Kurdish Iraqis endured horrible atrocities at Hussein's hands. Hussein's death is a vindication of their claims, a promise that they won't be subject to such horrors at his hands again. It's freeing.

Except. I wonder if it really is. Freeing, I mean.

On the day Timothy McVeigh was executed by the United States government (and, therefore, by my tax dollars at work), I was an intern in the United States Senate. I worked on the Republican side of a committee office, which was an interesting life experience given that I'm not a Republican. That's another story. But suffice it to say that I was surrounded that day by people who believed strongly in the value of the death penalty, in its effectiveness as a deterrent, in its righteousness as punishment for heinous crime.

One of my fellow interns had done a research project on the death penalty's efficacy as a deterrent for violent crime. She found that it isn't a deterrent, that it makes little or no difference to those who commit violent crimes whether or not they will be subject to execution as punishment for their crimes.

This didn't make her believe that the death penalty was a bad thing, though. "I want it to be there for revenge," she said. "They deserve to die."

It's hard to argue with that. But on the day of the McVeigh execution, those of us in the intern room were glued to the television set in our tiny, shared office behind the mailroom. Of course they didn't show it, but the news cameras were ready to interview the victims' family members who witnessed the death of the man who killed their family members.

Their answers were surprising. Many survivors expressed relief that justice had been served. But many others seemed shocked at what they had witnessed, and, worse, surprised that the closure they expected from the experience hadn't come. "It didn't make me feel better," said survivor after survivor.

It didn't make anyone in the intern room feel better either, except for the revenge-minded one. "I expected to feel different," said the football player from North Carolina.

I'm not going to comment on whether Hussein should have been executed or not. There are many reasons Hussein deserved to die, not the least being that death is the only way to guarantee he won't ever engineer a return to power. There are many reasons not to execute Hussein, not the least being the question of the morality of deciding who should live and who should die, and of the state making a judgment that an individual is beyond redemption. If you want to read about that, the Vatican issued a statement saying that his execution was wrong, because it's wrong for humans to take human life.

Regardless of which side of this debate you and I fall on, we need to be cautious in thinking that state executions will solve our problems. We need to understand that killing a murderer won't necessarily make us feel better, or give us closure, or end a nightmare. And as with everything else where we attempt to play God, to make decisions about who gets to live and who gets to die and who gets access to medication and clean water and who doesn't, we need to act with great humility, with a sense of justice, and with gratefulness for the mercy we've received in our own lives.

"Does he repent him, or is there only room for his fear? Is there nothing that can be done now, is there not an angel that comes there and cries, This is for God, not for man, come child, come with me?"
-Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country

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