December 16, 2003 | Peter

Civilisation and the death penalty

The UN and Britain have both come out against the death penalty for Saddam, and so should have Australia. I suspect Saddam’s fate may become one of those defining moments of civilisation, like the Nuhremburg trials after WWII. Terrible things have happened, and there is a chance to reflect and act with a mind to the higher principles that the West likes to claim justify its global pre-eminence. President Bush’s record as Governor of Texas hardly makes him a credible proponent of such values, but if there is real pressure from the rest of the developed world then the West’s claims to civilisational maturity will be strengthened. Exactly because Saddam has come to embody evil for so many, he must be treated scrupuloulsy fairly to show that justice is beyond the individual. Otherwise, it is just about power – a view I think Osama Bin Laden would take.
As for Mark Latham, his punitive mindset is one of the things, like crude language, that he must leave behind as leader. In any case, since Australia does not have the death penalty (after long and painful experience) he simply has to put the national position on this matter. Howard’s failure to do so is just one more nail in his coffin as a genuine Australian leader.
Australia used be seen as perhaps the most fair and reasonable of all the developed nations, a leader in international affairs. Increasingly we are just perceived as subservient US followers. Latham is weak in foreign affairs, so if he wants to establish a profile and at the same time reassert national independence, taking a positive, independent line in the wash-up of the war in Iraq is one way to do it.

Posted by Peter at 1:43 pm | Comments (4) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. I agree that we in Australia should oppose the death penalty like the British and the U.N.
    Though I am not sure that making Mark Latham change his own personal opinion (that same opinion that is considered one of his greatest strengths over Howard) to be that of a more compassionate and ‘modern’ outlook.
    Would it make him look like a spin-doctored polly, like the rest of them, or would it come across as a man willing to change his neanderthal thoughts for the betterment of the country?
    I’m not sure, and I guess we won’t know now he has made his stance clear.

    Comment by matthew byrne — December 17, 2003 @ 8:57 am

  2. The death penalty may have value, if any, as deterrence. We should put aside all considerations of revenge in all – almost all? mostly all? – cases, although I admit there have been cases, especially of gang rape and murder, and grossly inhuman offences where my anti-revenge ethic has been sorely tested by my instinctive rage.
    As to deterrence, I think I am right in saying that, though we have never had the death penalty in my home state of Queensland since about 1920, Queensland has not suffered unusually from capital crime. Keeping my fingers crossed, I think it has been a fairly safe and law-abiding place to live.
    As to Nuremburg, did it stop anything or did it start something? We’ve had a good supply of bloodthirsty dictators and other horror regimes and regime-masters since then.
    May I just say that I feel nausea at what Saddam has done in the past. At the same time,
    I feel nausea at the way we – or they? – have dug him out and humiliated him, mercilessly, before the whole world now and I feel even more nausea at the vision of his being dragged out, at some cold dawn in the future, and “hanged by the neck until he is dead, and may God have mercy on his soul.”
    Somehow, I think it would inflict more pain on our collective soul than it would on his.
    James Cumes

    Comment by James Cumes — December 19, 2003 @ 6:00 pm

  3. In one of the units I taught for several years an essay topic was capital punishment, so I was presented year after year with some often well thought out arguments on this thorny issue. The evidence suggests that there is minimal or no deterrence effect and that because the appeals process must be particularly scrupulous, there is minimal cost saving in terms of keeping prisoners.
    But I think the core issue is about moral authority, and I accept the idea that if we are to give society (or civilisation, or whatever we wish to call it) authority over individuals, that authority must act according to a set of principles beyond revenge. So I think James Cumes is dead right that although Saddam does not morally deserve the ‘mercy’ of a prison sentence we must keep to our own principles for our own sake.
    As for Latham, I note that Barry Jones has said that it is long standing ALP policy to oppose the death penalty and that Latham must follow that lead.

    Comment by peter mcmahon — December 20, 2003 @ 4:38 pm

  4. The valu of the death penalty, for most who call for it, is merely in the fact that it makes them feel more secure in their collective and psychic beds of an evening.
    Really thats all there is to it. The revenge factor is just anger and a sense of ineffectualism fed by the commercial news and so – caled current affairs shows who play shock-horror anger raisers all evening long to a mass audience of people who didn’t get the chance at a left wing uni education. Who, if they got to uni at all, went to such as the Uni Western Syd (all power to them and respect)and received something rather less that that sense of student radicalism that some of us caught the tail end of on the post-70’s early 80’s under Fraser who then was the fascist of the time. Don’t you recall?
    Of course the pathetic and dishevelled dictator, who as we realise is of our own western government’s making (but not so much, personally of ours as we would be encouraged by some to believe), should be chucked in an Iraqi prison and left there (in the most humane and cared for way the Iraqi prison system will be able to manage).
    But that will leave the subsequent Iraqi regime, whoever they are after the big wash-up and it won’t be Chalabi and friends in the end, to deal with a prolonged hero worship routine at the very least in the sunni triangle and no-doubt in the so-called arab world to quite a degree as well. Will they want that? I think not.
    The chances are he will end up dead in the not too distant future anyway, whether by firing squad or some unexpected health event ‘surprsingly’ and closely following his incarceration. Maybe, the post Saddam regime will no doubt think, that will cut down on the heroics amongst the rump support base.
    But it is for us that we need to be concerned, all of this stuff is so far out of our hands its a joke. The US could care less realy what we think about the death penalty – in the short term at least.
    Paying close attention, it is, rather, in Latham that we must trust – for there is no (currently speaking) other.
    What is it about the left leaning liberality in Australia that it is determined to destroy the chances that Latham is instinctively grasping at. He has little choice in the current Australian mindset (perhaps not in yours or mine, but you and I do not represent the majority of national voters). He has only a little lee-way available and so he at this stage can but see a way that is to to go wth the baying hounds. But, if I may extend the thing, like adog sled he will have to gradually turn it; to re-introduce the country to the instincts of care and concern for what is right that Aussies have in spades.
    After all we have had nearly ten years of this narrow and suburban maestro-fascist PM and his bunch and the western suburban reality today is that they support the death penalty, they do not even see the moral imperitives at stake (they do not compute, no, they do not even get a thought) and the masses want Saddam to die for he is the ‘filthy bosch’ of the moment.
    Give us all a break, we have destroyed Crean and who else i there? If we are to change things in the place we have to stop simply looking for ways to tear at Latham and instead we simply have to think in the longer term. We have to do this if Australia is to have a chance at the coming election for change – or else my brethren its four more years!
    If we are ever to re-establish ourselves as that country of forward thinking leaders, we must first recapture the house of representatives!

    Comment by Peter Usher — December 23, 2003 @ 10:59 am

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