Dagger in hand

A man of prodigious fortune, coming to add his opinion to some light discussion that was going on casually at his table, began precisely thus: "It can only be a liar or an ignoramus who will say otherwise than," and so on. Pursue that philosophical point, dagger in hand.

--Michel de Montaigne, Of the art of discussion.

Stab back: cmnewman99-at-yahoo.com


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Tuesday, April 08, 2003
Best served cold. I'm sorry, but Saddam being vaporized in a bunker blast somewhere just doesn't seem satisfactory. It's like one of those manipulative thrillers that always let you down in the end. You know the ones, where they spend the whole movie building up your hatred of the villain. He repeatedly inflicts unspeakable suffering on innocent people, and does so with an air of idle amusement. Impervious to remorse or compassion, he smugly taunts those whose wives he has raped, whose children he has tortured. It's transparently manipulative, but it works like a charm. You can't help but want to see this guy go down. Way down. The problem, though, is that the more creativity they use in building up the villain's evilness, the higher the bar is set for what constitutes just desserts. Mere death is too easy for these people. You want to see them broken, because the most offensive thing about them isn't their acts, but their lack of human feeling. You want to see them in real fear, real suffering. And you want it to last long enough to expiate all the suffering they inflicted on others. This is the deep-rooted moral sentiment that Dostoevsky put so eloquently into the mouth of Ivan Karamazov. It is of course frowned upon by civilization and the higher forms of morality that civilization seeks to promulgate to maintain its own existence. But it is ineradicable, which is why there's so much entertainment that vicariously panders to it. The problem is that the civilizing impulse, while not doing away with revenge fantasy completely, nevertheless manages to emasculate it. Heroes never torture villains, even though everything we have seen makes us feel that the villain deserves that and more. Because that would in some way legitimize revenge and torture and take us a step away from civilization. So we are left most of the time with comeuppances that feel horribly hollow and anticlimactic. For the villain to be killed in hand to hand combat with the hero is minimal satisfaction at best. For him to die horribly by means of one the same cruel mechanisms he used on others is better, but usually too quick--good only for a moment of fear and pain, when what one really wants is psychological suffering of the kind that the victims experienced. The only movie I can think of that accomplished this was The Crow, because there the hero actually had the power to transfer the suffering deliberately inflicted on the victim directly into the villain's consciousness. Perfect justice.

So it is with Saddam and his sons. Getting blown up is far too impersonal and instantaneous. Ideally they'd be captured alive so that the new Iraqi government could try them. Not us, not the Hague. The Iraqi people. They're the ones with the right to try these guys. That process in and of itself would be punitive, because it would give these people who are used to wielding the power of life and death at whim over everyone around them some salutary humiliation, some time to let it sink in that now they are in the power of their victims. And this would be the best outcome politically as well, because then Saddam would be subject not to the rightly suspect "victor's justice" but to victim's justice. And though they'd probably want to inflict the death penalty, maybe for these guys long term humiliation in prison is actually a better punishment than death. Ideally chained at the bottom of some cistern with an opening at the top where the public could come and pay their respects. If the prisoners were in danger of drowning in respect, they could always open a drain once in a while.

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