In life, Saddam Hussein was a pitiless tyrant. He had murdered thousands, been caught hiding in a rat hole with a weapon he failed to fire, and blustered
and bellowed at his trial for the mass execution of men and boys in reprisal for an attempt on his life.
Yet “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it.”
Before transfer to his executioners, Saddam thanked each U.S. soldier who had guarded him. He entered the chamber with dignity. He answered with brave defiance taunts of “Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada” from the Shia thugs around him. And he fell to his death with a prayer of submission to Allah on his lips.
“Where, O death, is thy victory? Where, O death, is thy sting?”
The contrast between that manliness, and the callousness and crudity of those who hanged him and came to watch, has gone far to convert a Stalinist tyrant into a Sunni martyr of American imperialism and Shi’ite vengefulness.
In death, Saddam now likely has more admirers in the Middle East than George W. Bush does in life. Such was the travesty of his execution. Though the hanging of Saddam was justified, why can we not learn from history that magnanimity in triumph is often wiser than a strict justice better left to higher authority?
Looking back, what did the burning of Joan of Arc do for the English? What did the guillotining of Marie Antoinette do for Robespierre and the Revolution?
Even the 1859 hanging of John Brown, witnessed by Union Col. Thomas J. Jackson, made a martyr to abolition of a terrorist who had perpetrated the massacre of Pottawatomie Creek.
In a letter to his wife, Jackson described Brown’s death: “John Brown was hung today. … He behaved with unflinching firmness. … and ascended the scaffold with apparent cheerfulness.”
Compare, if you will, the thoughts that crossed the Christian mind of Stonewall Jackson, as Brown was hanged, to the conduct of that Shia execution party. Wrote Jackson to his beloved wife, “I was much impressed with the thought that before me stood a man, in the full vigor of health, who must in a few minutes be in eternity. I sent up a petition that he might be saved. Awful was the thought that he might in a few minutes receive the sentence ‘Depart ye wicked into everlasting fire.’ I hope that he was prepared to die, but I am very doubtful—he wouldn’t have a minister with him.”
Between Jackson’s Christianity and today’s radical Islam, the gulf is unbridgeable.
Though the British blundered eternally in the burning of Joan, they behaved wisely with Napoleon. Following his retreat from Russia, the Corsican who had set Europe ablaze and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands was sent into exile on Elba. When he escaped and raised an army to meet Wellington at Waterloo and was defeated, Napoleon was not hanged, but exiled again, to St. Helena. He died a natural death, if one does not credit reports that he was slowly poisoned with arsenic.
The body of Napoleon rests in the church at Les Invalides. And because the British did not execute their emperor, France and Britain could come together to resist the German invasion of 1914.
Compare that British act of magnanimity with later British folly. On Easter Monday 1916, 2,000 rebels seized the General Post Office in Dublin and other public buildings. The conspirators were seen by Britons and many of their own countrymen as traitors, stabbing in the back the Mother Country and British army, in which thousands of their Irish kinsmen had enlisted.
Met by ridicule, facing superior firepower, the rebels capitulated in a week. Had their leaders been sentenced to long prison terms, the incident would have been over. But at this point, the British government committed what many consider its greatest blunder in seven centuries of dealing with Ireland. Fifteen rebels, including cultural nationalist Patrick Pearse and labor leader James Connally, were sent before firing squads, creating 15 martyrs for Irish independence to be immortalized by Yeats:
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
With the execution of the rebels of the Easter Rising, the Home Rule Party of John Redmond that supported the war effort and urged Irishmen to enlist was finished, replaced in Irish hearts by Sinn Fein, the party of independence. The executions had elevated the bungling conspirators into the pantheon of Irish freedom fighters.
Within months of the war’s end, the rebellion that would tear Ireland forever from England was underway. “In victory, magnanimity,” said Churchill, who did not always practice what he preached.