Anne Notations

Friday, December 29, 2006

Hanging in the balance

The news flashed across the Internet tonight: Saddam Hussein is dead, hanged moments earlier by order of an Iraqi court for crimes against humanity - specifically, the murders of 148 Shias in the town of Dujail in 1982. These particular executions represented, of course, a mere fraction of the death and suffering the man inflicted on his fellow Iraqi citizens during his reign of terror.

It may not be the world's loss that an amoral, power-besotted man has been put to death. I had no respect for Saddam, who, when not persecuting Kurds and Shias and vilifying America, could appear sleazily comical: absurd in his banana-republic military mufti, clownish in his rampant megolomania. Such a man will not be widely missed, and I'm not feeling ambivalent about whether justice has been served, although the death penalty is not something I generally support. It was, rather, the image of Saddam's hanging that made me shudder when I read the news. It seems to me that we did lose something tonight - not a man, but a small shred of our humanity.

In 1961, during the annual book fair at our elementary school in Riverside, Connecticut, I opened a large volume on the American Civil War. Flipping through its pages, I was stunned to come upon an old black-and-white photograph of four human beings hanging by their necks from a gallows, faces shrouded and limbs bound. A crowd was beginning to file out of an enclosure past the bodies, which belonged to three men and a woman convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of President Lincoln.

I was in fifth grade, 10 years old, and had never seen anything in my short, sheltered life as horrifying as those hanged bodies. My hyperactive imagination began reconstructing the moments leading up to the scene in the photograph. I doubt I slept well that night. Forty-five years later, I recognized the photo instantly during a quick Google search this evening.

If civilized people must inflict death on individuals in the name of justice, I would plead that we do so in a manner that causes the condemned to suffer the least possible mental and physical agony. Surely the lethal injections we give our dying pets are final enough for even the beastliest mass murderer.

So much for Saddam's hanging, per se, and enough of my childhood psychodramas. This execution's implications for stability within Iraq, not to mention in the Middle East and globally, are immense. What next? To me, the Middle East is the navel of the world, a place of portentous beginnings where spirituality is literally part of the landscape and tribal tensions become global flashpoints with unnerving regularity. In my mind I walk to the Western Wall tonight and shove a paper prayer into a crack among the ancient stones: "Let wisdom lead us to peace." Humankind may not yet be capable of enacting the Golden Rule, but at least we might behave as if we're trying.


  • Wow. G-d bless you. I was very moved by this piece on many levels.

    The Talmud tells a story of a man who was hung and he had a twn brother and how it was a disgrace for the brother because people associated the two. The Talmud applies this to man being in the image of G-d and that when a death penalty is inflicted any prolonged display is wrong.

    We all need to pray a lot and do do a lot to bring dignity and peace to this world.

    By Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann, at Sun Jan 07, 01:10:00 AM EST  

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