Questioning Authority: Richard Moran on Saddam Hussein

Wednesday, January 10, 2007 - 12:00

Sociology professor Richard Moran is a criminologist and the author of Executioner’s Current (2002), the story of the first execution by the electric chair in 1890. We asked him for his thoughts on the recent execution of Saddam Hussein.

QA: Was the execution of Saddam Hussein a mistake?

RM: Certainly. The Iraqi government missed a terrific opportunity when they executed him. Giving Saddam life in prison would have been a statement of what the new Iraq aspires to be. They could have said, “We are putting violence, revenge, and retaliation--thousands of years of history--behind us.” But instead, hanging him while the Shiite guards taunted him was just the opposite of what could have been.

QA: So the decision regarding Saddam’s punishment could have been a turning point?

RM: Yes. It reminds me of President Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon. Allowing the criminal justice system to go forward and send Richard Nixon to jail would have demonstrated that in our country, no one is above the law. But the pardon showed that if you have a high position you can trade it in for a Get Out of Jail Free card.

QA: Are you for or against the death penalty?

RM: I’m against it.

QA: Why?

RM: Because there’s no way to administer the death penalty in a manner that’s defensible. You don’t even need to reach questions like social class or racial discrimination. I have testified in more than 25 death penalty hearings, and in almost every one of those cases, the jury’s decision on life or death turned on arbitrary and capricious bits of superfluous information. Just to give one example: a man went into a convenience store, took a six-pack of beer, and shot the clerk. The question of whether he could face the death penalty depended on whether or not he had paid for the beer. If he didn’t pay, then the crime would be a felony murder, that is, a murder committed in connection with a separate felony, and punishable by death.

QA: Aren’t there certain criminals who deserve the death penalty?

RM: That question misses the point. Take the case of Timothy McVeigh. Of course he deserved to die, but the punishment isn’t about McVeigh, it’s about us. It’s about who we are as a country and a people. We don’t want to be the kind of country that acts out of revenge, for it only invites retaliatory violence. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth usually leaves us all blind and toothless. Iraq, indeed the entire Middle East, has a long way to go before it learns this fundamental lesson.

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