Saddam Hussein's death by hanging came too late to provide much satisfaction -- too late for the hundreds of thousands of human beings killed on his orders -- hundreds at his own hands. The taking of his miserable life can neither bring back the lives he so callously snuffed out nor compensate for them.
Still, there was rejoicing at the sight of Saddam on the gallows.
My satisfaction has nothing to do with bloodlust. I would not have been one of the thousands of Iraqis vying for the post of Saddam's executioner. Rather it derives from being witness to the turning of the wheels of Divine Justice. The Midrash states that the Divine throne only became firmly established in the world when the Jewish people sang God's praises at the Sea. Their joyous song was a consequence of watching the precision with which the suffering of each drowning Egyptian was meted out: The Egyptians either died instantaneously or slowly and painfully, according to the degree with which they had afflicted the Jews in Egypt.
Divine vengeance, then, is the righting of an imbalance in the world, and refers equally to the punishment of the wicked and the reward of the righteous. When we merit witnessing the enactment of justice, our belief that there is both Justice and a Judge is strengthened.
Three times daily, we call in our prayers for God to "destroy speedily all His enemies." Can there be a greater enemy of God than one who murders hundreds of thousands of His creations? From the beginning of human history, God proclaimed the rule, "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God He made man" (Genesis 9:6).
Needless to say much of the world does not view matters as I do. And I don't just mean the Palestinians who benefited from Saddam's generous subsidies to the families of suicide bombers or to Saddam's erstwhile partner in various oil scams, the notorious Russian xenophobe Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The latter labeled Saddam's execution "the greatest crime of the 21st century." The so-called civilized world joined in the chorus of condemnation. The European Union and its member states expressed their repugnance at the imposition of the death penalty in all circumstances. Tim Hames, writing in the The Times of London, went so far as to proclaim Saddam's execution "as ethically tainted as the crimes that produced that sentence."
The critics refuse to enter imaginatively into the world of Saddam's victims and to contemplate the true nature of his evil.
Following that logic, the execution of Nazi war criminals tried at Nuremberg was as "ethically tainted" as Hitler's crimes. Those who hold that position no doubt are convinced of their superior humanity. To my mind, however, the opposite is true. Their narcissistic back-patting partakes of a certain inhuman coldness.
The critics refuse to enter imaginatively into the world of Saddam's victims and to contemplate the true nature of his evil. They do not wish to contemplate what it is like to be a parent forced to watch your child tortured to extract your "confession," what it is like to spend your entire life afraid to enter into an intimate conversation with another human being for fear that he or she might be one of Saddam's informers, what it is like to have parents, siblings or children taken away in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. And then multiply such scenarios millions of times over.
During Saddam's 23-year reign of terror, nearly 300,000 Iraqis disappeared -- more than 12,000 a year, 240 a week. And that number does not even include the hundreds of Iraqi athletes crippled and maimed for life in Uday Hussein's torture chambers for failing to bring sufficient glory to the regime, or the thousands of girls seized off the streets to satisfy the lusts of the Husseins.
At his trial, Saddam neither denied his crimes nor expressed the slightest repentance. The equation of Saddam's execution, after trial, to his crimes is on a par with those pat moral equivalencies so beloved of Left intellectuals during the Cold War - Soviet imperialism vs the cultural imperialism of Hollywood.
Yale computer scientist David Gelernter, who had a bomb sent by the Unabomber blow up in his face, made mincemeat of this moral equivalency in his book Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber: It is through capital punishment of murders - and not by running to forgive them - that we as a society "show our respect for the dead and proclaim the value of human life," he writes.
Among those rushing to condemn Saddam's execution was the Vatican, which pronounced his hanging "tragic." Few issues so distinguish the Torah viewpoint from that of many Christian groups as that of forgiveness for mass murderers.
Shmuley Boteach rightly noted the consanguinity between the Vatican's condemnation and Pope Benedict XVI's reception of the Iranian foreign minister, who was fresh from organizing Teheran's conference of Holocaust deniers, and his conveyance of warm regards to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who boasts of his plans for the next Holocaust.
The condemnation and the warm regards share a certain moral obtuseness, and provide proof of our Sages' insight: "He who is merciful when he should be cruel will end up being cruel when he should be merciful."
What is lost in the pat equation of Saddam's life with those of his victims is horror of evil. And that loss of horror paves the way for further evil.
The contrast between Jewish and Christian attitudes to forgiveness was recently highlighted by the response of an Amish community to the cold-blooded murder of five schoolgirls and the serious wounding of 10 more. At the funeral of one of the slain girls, her grandfather spoke and said of the perpetrator, "We must not think evil of this man." The neighbors and friends of the victims' families professed to feel no hatred towards the girls' killer.
In contrast to the Vatican's cheap sympathy for Saddam, the attitude of the Amish, at least, manifests spiritual grandeur. They offered forgiveness to the murderer of their own children and grandchildren, not to the mass murderer of distant victims.
Jews too are instructed to hate the sin and not the sinner. But sometimes the two are inextricably bound, as in Saddam's case. And often, easy forgiveness of the sinner diminishes the horror of his crimes. As Rabbi David Gottlieb of Baltimore pointed out in the wake of the Amish tragedy, even God Himself does not forgive sins committed against a fellow human being until the victim's forgiveness has been secured. No one can confer forgiveness on behalf of the victim, and all the more so when no forgiveness was sought.
Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is also "a time to hate." Would we really wish to live, asks Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, in a society in which no one gets angry when children are slaughtered, a society in which there is an instantaneous dispensation for the most horrific acts of cruelty? I would not. And that is why I was glad to see Saddam hanging at the end of a noose.