Washington Post

By Richard Cohen

This column may be the most futile of my long career. I am about to plead for Saddam Hussein’s life. I do so not because I have the slightest doubt that he is a killer, responsible for taking the lives of many thousands, but because sparing his life would send a message to the world that judicial death — so often abused — is no longer acceptable.

Such a day will come, no doubt about it. The death penalty is already illegal in most of Europe, and renunciation of it is required for admission to the European Union. Many other countries keep the death penalty on their books but have not had an execution in so long that the prospect of one is remote.

This, of course, is not the case in the United States. Here, the death penalty not only remains on the books but executions are common. Along with such pariah nations as Sudan, the United States still executes children (under 18) and the mentally feeble — and, inevitably, the innocent.

President Bush has already endorsed the death penalty for Hussein. “I think he ought to get the ultimate penalty,” he told ABC’s Diane Sawyer. But Bush, a primitive in such matters, was somehow not the first to call for Hussein’s death. That honor may belong to Joe Lieberman, who, in the manner of John Ashcroft with the Washington snipers, said the United States ought to shop for a jurisdiction that permits the death penalty. For some reason — probably an oversight — he did not suggest Virginia or Texas.

Instead Lieberman merely ruled out the International Criminal Court in The Hague, because it is not empowered to impose the death penalty. The court is now trying the former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic — and has already convicted others from the wars in the former Yugoslavia — but it sorely lacks a gallows, and for that matter a torture chamber.

“So my first question about where he’s going to be tried will be answered by whether the tribunal can execute him,” Lieberman said in response to a question from Tim Russert on “Meet The Press.” Calling Hussein evil, the Connecticut senator said, “This man … has to face the death penalty.”

Probably most of the Democratic presidential candidates agree. In the United States the right of the government to take life is almost universally accepted — if not applauded. In Europe there is no such consensus. That’s because in the past century, much of the continent suffered under fascist or communist governments that routinely murdered their own citizens, often “legally.” It’s true, of course, that these governments also jailed and tortured people without killing them, but only death is irrevocable. Life in prison is a lifetime of punishment.

In many ways Iraq was the equivalent of a European totalitarian country. Call it Baathist if you will, but Iraq under Saddam Hussein was essentially fascist, with the death penalty meted out willy-nilly, sometimes for serious crimes, sometimes for trivial infractions such as possession of a cell phone. The Iraqis no doubt expect to treat Hussein as he treated them. It would be marvelous if they were disappointed. We can do better than an eye for an eye. We can establish the principle of limited government that should be so dear to American conservatives such as Bush: Among the things government should not do is take a life.

Except for the principle, I don’t care about Saddam Hussein’s life. I care about him the same way I care about your more prosaic murderer — not at all. But the principle is important. The death penalty vindicates the killer’s mentality: Life can be taken. When a California killer named Hung Thanh Mai, who had murdered a cop at a routine traffic stop, faced the jury during the penalty phase of his trial, he said he was prepared to die.

“Personally, I believe in an eye for an eye,” he said. “I believe in two eyes for an eye. If you take down one of my fellows, I’d do everything to take down two of yours.”

President Bush, Joe Lieberman and much of America will probably have it their way. Saddam Hussein will be tried — probably in Iraq — found guilty and executed. In his reptilian brain, he will understand. He would have done the same thing himself.