Saturday, December 30, 2006

Death, and its dangers

"Because of the exceedingly great length of the war ... many had become hardened, because of the exceedingly great length of the war; and many were softened because of their afflictions"

No two people will respond identically to every situation. Some relationships are deepend by a crisis; others, destroyed. Some collapse under great stress; others cannot reach their full potential without it.

Just as, in the words of Ecclesiastes - or, if you prefer, the Byrds - there is "a time to kill, a time to heal, a time to rend, a time to sew"...there is someone who leads the way. In war we seek the best warriors; in misery we seek those who comfort us best. In folly we assume one cannot do both, but some of the stories that have most heartened me from Iraq have come from warriors who are also great humanitarians.

In an event as significant as the execution of Saddam Hussein, a wide range of reactions is inevitable. Some feel it is never right to kill, even someone as monstrous as Saddam. Others, that he got off easy with a simple hanging and should have been given a death commensurate with his crimes. Friends may disagree, some so much the friendship will end. Certainly many friendships have ended since September 11, 2001, over deep disagreements as to who we are, and who we should be.

The great tragedy is, it is only through greater unity that we will survive this struggle. We will have differences, but how we deal with those differences will either unite us in a common cause, or dangerously weaken us.

I certainly sympathize - in my initial reaction I remembered an Orson Scott Card story and wished aloud that we could clone and kill him a few million times. In "A Thousand Deaths," society had developd a way to snapshot and store a consciousness and then downloaded it into a new body. This could be done even at the moment of death, which in this story gave capital punishment a new twist. You could kill a man over and over, and have him remember every moment - truly a cruel and unusual fate. But in the process, something is lost - and not just the inevitability and irremediability of death. Those who commit the Groundhog Day executions lose their humanity, even as the repeatedly-condemned grows jaded. Death becomes irrelevant; dying loses its sting.

John Donne's "any man's death diminishes me" has lost some of its punch through misuse and over-use, but remains true - even the death of Stalin's Mesopotamian acolyte, because of my initial reaction to it. The last laugh of a man such as Saddam is to sow the seeds of callousness that enabled his own seven-figure body count. But like a certain decision scientist, Saddam Hussein is "human" to me.

I do support capital punishment. I believe any culture that cannot kill in its own defense is at the mercy of those that can. When someone murders, they have harmed not just that person, not only their family and friends, but the very community. If crimes are not punished, then law loses power; where law is lost, there is no civilization. When the crime is severe enough to threaten the community's existence, execution can be seen as killing in self-defense. European countries, which have abolished the death penalty and practically made self-defense a crime, are now increasingly at the mercy of encroaching Islamism within their borders. If you won't kill to defend yourself, you end up at the mercy of those who will kill over cartoons and documentaries.

Execution can also be murder, though. Thie French Revolution comes to mind. But beyond that--what separates honorable warfare from common murder is state of mind. Our modern military has some of the best men and women of our generation, but we have also seen some scoundrels. Significantly, those who hate these scoundrels most are those who wear the same uniforms, who take pride in their service and the constitution they are sworn to defend.

In like manner, I know some who currently serve, who appreciate the support of those back home but who think some of the more "bloodthirsty" on the home front need to "chill." They're not just about killing the bad guys; they take greater pride in those they're saving and serving. It is easier for me to cry for vengeance, because I am not the instrument of vengeance. It is easy for me to chortle at the death of a dictator whose only impact on me personally has been high gas prices and good material. My laughter comes at small cost.

Those who are still raking through heaps of sand to find remains of their loved ones killed by Saddam, they have earned the right to react as they do - and most of them are responding with greater dignity. For them, his death means a permanent end to the fear that he will return. I watched him in the trial; Saddam was charismatic, defiant, and convinced that "without me, Iraq is nothing" - among his last words yesterday, according to some reports. I know why the people feared his return; until the end, he believed he would - and he wasn't alone.

But again - the death of a genocidal despot diminishes me more because of my reaction. Is my thirst sated, or do I crave more? I cheered Zarkawi's death. Every Al Qaeda leader turned into a grease stain by American ingenuity, I celebrate. There are bad people who will seek to kill my country to their last breath, who need to be stopped. But in the process of stopping them, I fear the loss of what we are spending our precious blood to defend - our national character.

It's one reason why, as I've thought about yesterday, I'm most heartened by the process the Iraqi's took. They did it by the book. They gave Saddam more than ample opportunity to spout off in his own defense. They didn't give up when lawyers and judges were assassinated; they continued the process. They didn't throw him into a pile of ravenous hyenas wearing a suit of bacon. In the brief snippet of video I saw, it was conducted with dignity and solemnity.

"Iraq is nothing without me." But that isn't what I saw. I saw no rage, no bloodlust, no lynching. I saw civilization defending itself - not just from Saddam, but from the very culture of death in which he saturated them for decades.

I celebrate that, but with no humor. Only a prayer that the long night of Iraqi sorrows will end soon, that the taste for blood will turn sour, and that peace will reign in a troubled land.

3 comments:

machinist said...

Very well said, Sir. Many people will be paid big bucks to say what you just did, and they will not do it as well or will miss the point entirely. You demonstrate why you have my admiration and respect.

SBH said...

Sulla, my friend, you say the things I wish I had the words to express. Thank you, you're a good man.

OttavaRima said...

Thank you, Sulla.