Sunday, December 31, 2006

Revenge isn't justice

By Nancy Jane Moore

From all accounts, Saddam Hussein did terrible things over the course of his life. If you subscribe to the principles of karma, he deserved his ignoble end.

But his trial -- judging by the news reports -- was a mockery of legal process. As Juan Cole says, "The trial and execution of Saddam were about revenge, not justice."

The irony is that it would have been easy to convict Saddam of any number of horrible crimes while using even the relatively high standard of due process the US affords criminal defendants. This is not a case -- like those so beloved of TV cop shows -- where the bad guy would get away if we didn't bend the rules.

And the rules are important. Revenge may be a natural emotion -- we all want it when we've been ill-treated -- but civilized societies should not operative on revenge. It's primitive and it usually leads to more killing.

Justice systems were set up to weigh offenses and consequences dispassionately. They are imperfect -- they are created by human beings -- but even at their weakest they beat the hell out of vigilante justice and kangaroo courts. At their best, they deal fairly with those brought before them, convicting the guilty based on honest evidence and letting go those whose crimes cannot be proved.

The trial and execution of Saddam show a failure of the Iraqi justice system -- and a failure of the US, which let it happen. Justice systems should not be judged by how well they handle the easy cases, but what they do when principles are at stake. Here, the justice system failed miserably.

The Iraqi people got revenge for years of bad leadership and crimes against their fellow citizens. The US got revenge, though I'm not certain what we got it for -- the invasion of Kuwait? Plots against G. Bush Sr.? Deaths of our soldiers in Iraq? We'd still like revenge for September 11, but that had nothing to do with Saddam.

That we humans continue to let revenge call the shots in this world is yet another example of how we have not yet become civilized. We had a chance with the trial of Saddam to deal fairly with a man who never dealt fairly. We failed.

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