Let me begin with a crass generalization. Parents are like hostages, and soldiers in foxholes: They believe in God. All of them. If they are atheists, they have real doubts about their atheism that purebred died-in-the-wool atheists do not have. And if they say this is not the case, they’re lying. Certain situations, certain perspectives, give one cause to absorb the news that life hands us day-to-day, and seriously ponder whether a Supreme Intelligence is making itself evident.
And that’s the thing I can’t help but wonder, as I see Amnesty International turn the notion of “justice” on its head just as 2006 is coming to a close. In the protest they released against Saddam Hussein’s death sentence Thursday, they’ve managed to turn the concept of justice around a hundred and eighty degrees.
“The trial of Saddam Hussein and his seven co-accused before the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal (SICT) was deeply flawed and unfair, due to political interference which undermined the independence of the court and other serious failings,” sad Malcolm Smart, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa programme. “The Appeals Court should have addressed these deficiencies and ordered a fair re-trial, not simply confirmed the sentences as if all was satisfactory at the trial stage.”
“It was absolutely right that Saddam Hussein should be held to account for the massive violations of human rights committed by his regime, but justice requires a fair process and this, sadly, was far from that, “said Malcolm Smart.”The trial should have been a landmark in the establishment of the rule of law in Iraq after the decades of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. It was an opportunity missed.”
Okay, let’s start with the points of agreement, between AI and myself: Massive violations of human rights. Justice demands a fair process. Mr. Smart and myself are in agreement here: Justice is the administration of a fair verdict and sentence, in the aftermath of violations.
Now somewhere after this common ground has passed underfoot, something has happened which has made Mr. Smart upset, something he regards as unfair. I do not know what it is. Mr. Smart doesn’t want to tell me what it is, and if he does, Amnesty International has whittled his comments down to size because apparently they do not want me to know what it is. It could be this highly meaningful assertion is based, entirely, on the concluding paragraph, which is the only text in the AI press release I can find that even approaches justification for the above:
The trial before the SICT, which began in October 2005 and concluded with the imposition of sentences on 5 November, was widely criticised due to political interference and the court’s failure to ensure the safety of witnesses and defence lawyers, three of whom were murdered during the course of the proceedings, and for failing to establish an effective case against the accused.
I really do hope they got something better than that. “Failure to ensure the safety of witnesses and defence lawyers, three of whom were murdered during the course of the proceedings” simply means that justice is a sufficiently serious concern that people are willing to put their lives on the line to get it. The defense is to be commended for this…as is the prosecution, officers of the court, and everyone else involved. “Failing to establish an effective case against the accused” is nothing but a practical contradiction of the second paragraph quoted above. The dude did his stuff, or else he didn’t. Looks like he did; the court said so, and the facts say so. Moving on.
Thanks to Captain’s Quarters it was brought to our attention Friday that — surprise — the New York Times is none to fond of Saddam’s death sentence, either. And I cannot help noticing the Paper of Record, well-known as our nation’s journalistic flagship, picked up this mostly-unexplained and mostly-unexplored concept of “missed opportunity” and passed it on down, unskeptically, uncritically. In some passages, on a word-for-word basis. History demands it will then be echoed and re-echoed, like everything else that comes out of the Times. Such-and-such Tribune, So-and-so Herald, Mayberry Gazette, on and on and on…their editors read it in the Times, so it must be so.
What really mattered was whether an Iraq freed from [Saddam Hussein's] death grip could hold him accountable in a way that nurtured hope for a better future. A carefully conducted, scrupulously fair trial could have helped undo some of the damage inflicted by his rule. It could have set a precedent for the rule of law in a country scarred by decades of arbitrary vindictiveness…It could have, but it didn’t. After a flawed, politicized and divisive trial, Mr. Hussein was handed his sentence: death by hanging. This week, in a cursory 15-minute proceeding, an appeals court upheld that sentence and ordered that it be carried out posthaste…What might have been a watershed now seems another lost opportunity. After nearly four years of war and thousands of American and Iraqi deaths, it is ever harder to be sure whether anything fundamental has changed for the better in Iraq.
And ladies and gentlemen, there you have it. Poor ol’ 2006 is destined to spin its bones in its grave as it’s retirement is marked by a renewed demonstration of how what’s reported becomes the polar opposite of what’s really happening. Some cranky international activist group like Amnesty International says something was amiss, the Old Gray Lady repeats it, and then from sea to shining sea we’re going to be sold on the proposition that there’s no elephant in the room and no man behind the curtain.
That’s the spin. What does the evidence say, meanwhile? Saddam was guilty of violations and deserved to die — undisputed. He got what he had comin’ to him — measurable.
And here’s where I start to think The Lord works in mysterious ways. It is the eve of a new year; a time when we’re inspired to reflect on the way we’ve been doing things, and find ways to do them better, while keeping an open mind about perhaps doing entirely new things.
And AI, and the Old Gray Lady, make their intentions a little too clear about the word “justice.” They seek to re-define it to something beyond what it really is. Time we had some sort of symposium on what the J-word means. Here in the U.S., it’s a little overdue. Call me a hick, call me a NASCAR hillbilly if you want. Call me white trash. But I do believe the Good Lord wants us to put a little more thought into what justice is. I think He’s a little cheesed-off at the way we’ve been throwing the word around for the last generation plus. I think He put the itch between the ears of our Armani-suited anarchists, so they would sound off RIGHT now, as a way to inspire us to call out their bullshit.
Again: Let us start with the area of agreement. “Justice” means to get what’s comin’ to ya. It is, ultimately, a subjective thing that exists in the mind of the observer, which sometimes can present some problems. In the case of Saddam Hussein, it does not present a problem. He was a bad guy. Nobody with a reputation worth protecting, seeks to assert anything different. So when we look up “justice” in the dictionary, we find…
1. the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness: to uphold the justice of a cause.
2. rightfulness or lawfulness, as of a claim or title; justness of ground or reason: to complain with justice.
3. the moral principle determining just conduct.
4. conformity to this principle, as manifested in conduct; just conduct, dealing, or treatment.
5. the administering of deserved punishment or reward.
6. the maintenance or administration of what is just by law, as by judicial or other proceedings: a court of justice.
7. judgment of persons or causes by judicial process: to administer justice in a community.
8. a judicial officer; a judge or magistrate.
And I’m thinking definitions #4, #5 and #7 are closest to what we’re pondering here. Note that in all cases, even clear-cut ones like Mr. Hussein’s, this is a matter of opinion. Other cases are not so clear-cut. I go out and get a pet ferret, pet ferrets are illegal where I live, you might say I deserve to spend a year in jail. Other people might say the ferret law is stupid, and I don’t deserve any penalty at all. Someone else, yet, might think the ferret law is so unjust that I deserve a reward for opposing it. These are all legitimate opinions; what makes them so, assuming nothing else does, is that there are no known facts that directly contradict those opinions.
But it’s worth pointing out again: Such opinions are not represented in Saddam Hussein’s situation. It is agreed that he is guilty of wretched human violations. That he deserves death is agreed ipso facto. This would be a great time to make a stand against the death penalty, if one is inclined to do so — Amnesty Internatonal is not known for hawkish attitudes where the ultimate punishment is concerned — and in the situation at hand, nobody bothers to lift a finger. Their efforts to confuse the issue, exuberant and enthusiastic as they are, are confined to way the sentence was handed down and do not touch on the sentence itself. Well, that certainly says something.
With that observation, let’s venture forward into the area where we disagree. Those who seek to incite in me some kind of frustration with the way Saddam’s trial was executed (or denied a re-trial), have adhered to a trend of stopping with the argument right after defining this as their stated intent. They define this as the purpose and — right away! — it’s time to whip up the emotions. No logic involved at all. I have been instructed to believe the process is flawed. The particulars of the flaw, are left unmentioned. That says something too; I’ve read all the way through AI’s condemnation, and the Times’ as well. Every word of both of ‘em. Not lengthy epistles by any means, but I would expect that in this exercise I would trip across some foundation. All I got was a snarky observation at the end of Amnesty International’s little tome, to the effect that being involved in the trial was a deadly and dangerous thing.
That’s all I got out of both opinion pieces.
And you know what that tells me? Justice triumphed — where politically motivated people on both sides of the issue sought to thwart it, were willing to kill to confound it. Justice was attacked, and emerged victorious. Hey, champagne all around.
And yet, it seems safe to infer this brightened no one’s day at Amnesty International, or on the editorial board of the New York Times. These folks remain peeved about something…they’ve availed themselves no shortage of opportunity to say what it is…they will not say what it is. Personally, I doubt they want anyone to know what it is. But the better-late-than-never symposium on what justice means — awaits. So let’s give them the full benefit of the doubt, every smidgen of it. Let’s say Saddam Hussein’s trial was flawed and unfair, to such an odious extent that “what might have been a watershed now seems another lost opportunity,” even though those who say this is so, refuse to say why this is. Let’s just go with that anyway.
Is that not justice? You do something awful, and “just desserts” come to you, while the process by which they are delivered, is flawed? It’s still justice, isn’t it? Therein lies the question we’ve been needing to resolve for nearly half a century. So let’s take a look.
Well, move the question-at-hand to some other situation to take the emotion out of it. A hypothetical. I swindle some old widow out of her life savings, which is decidedly a bad thing to do. I invest my ill-gotten gains in the futures market on some kind of “sure thing” — my broker somehow screws up the order. Wrong delivery date on the commodity, or wrong commodity. I lose everything. Stupid broker! What a flawed process. He’s just asking to be sued…but of course, I can’t bring much of a suit now because I have no money. Unjust? Really? Who would say so?
Ever seen “Trading Places” with Dan Akroyd and Eddie Murphy? The one where Jamie Lee Curtis…yowza. Well, I digress, so let me wipe the drool out of the keyboard and continue onward. Remember the ending? What happened to Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche? Flawed process. The characters played by Akroyd and Murphy, it would seem, are guilty of several felonies — assuming they got caught, or failed to deliver on the orange juice contracts, neither one of which really happened. Badly flawed process. Unjust? Or, were Bellamy and Ameche’s characters “held accountable in a way that nurtured hope for a better future?” Hey, if anyone thought not, it wouldn’t have been funny.
How about acts of violence? How about if I shoot you from some distance for no reason…but since I’m a lousy shot, the bullet misses you, bounces off something, and nails me right between the eyes? Hey, that’s a pretty thoughtless process! I don’t get an appeal for my sentencing! Darn it, someone should do something. It doesn’t nurture my hopes for a better future at all! But what of it? I think everyone would agree there’s “justice” involved in that. Even most people opposed to the death penalty would be on board with that.
So the question I have for Amnesty International and the New York Times — and all of us, as we begin a new year — is this: How come we’re supposed to re-define “justice” from what we all know it really is…just because a human process is involved? What’s different, other than the potential for abuse of the retrial process in artificial proceedings? Mr. Smart, unlike the editorial board of our nation’s most prestigious newspaper, at least as the balls to say what he’d like to have done differently. If he had his way, the retrial would be granted. How this fixes any of whatever issues he had with the first trial, of course, goes unanswered…since there’s no good answer. And what those issues were, exactly, I don’t think I have a good understanding of it even though he’s gone out of his way to try to explain it to me. I know what decision was made, that he doesn’t like; I don’t know anything else about his beef.
Meanwhile, the asshole Saddam’s dead. Now, throughout the year I’ve been talking with some folks about Mr. Hussein’s death sentence. It impresses me that even people who are opposed to the death penalty, in several cases, “would grant an exception” for Iraq’s former despot. So…although justice can be a subjective thing, it seems acceptable to a broad cross section of us that this was just. Saddam Hussein did not deserve to live, and in politics as well as in tactics, his continued survival endangered others. With few, meaningless exceptions, the agreement on this is universal.
The debate before us, therefore, is whether the ends justify the means. That’s assuming I’m willing to grant that this trial was somehow unfair — a concession I make, here, only to pursue the argument. It hasn’t been substantiated very well, even by those who are obviously very passionate about substantiating it.
We must define what justice is. Is it the delivery of what’s deserved, or the process by which it is delivered? You know what? It seems to be the delivery itself. The end does justify the means. The process is secondary.
The process does remain somewhat important because it has the potential to change what is deserved. This observation has no bearing at all in the case of Saddam Hussein. So some of our more pacifist types seek to make the process of delivery a primary consideration, simply for the sake of protesting things. That is their fatal flaw, for the process is not primary at all. It is decidedly subordinate, especially when you talk about “landmark[s] in the establishment of the rule of law.” Corrupting that, is done far more effectively by denying the guilty what they got comin’, than by delivering what they got comin’ through a trial that some peevish activist group happens to dislike in some nebulous way. Saddam Hussein got what was deserved, and justice was done. The New York Times says the trial “could have set a precedent for the rule of law in a country scarred by decades of arbitrary vindictiveness” — and based on the information I’ve been able to find, it has achieved exactly that.