Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Saddam, Pinochet, and the Notion of Justice

Helmut, over at Phronesisiacal, says it right:

Two dead tyrants: Saddam and Pinochet. Two tragedies: that neither death is justice, whether the death came naturally or as the result of a bogus, politicized trial and state execution. Apologists for Pinochet on the right ought to be ashamed. Apologists for Saddam from the left ought to be ashamed. To the extent that neither are ashamed, they're moral cretins. The point is tyranny and the prescription is to bring tyrants to justice, real justice, for their abuses. Killing someone for expediency's sake or political reasons itself sleeps on the side of tyranny and only makes space for future tyrants and future states of exception.
If we follow Helmut and desire "to bring tyrants to justice, real justice," the obvious question is "What is real justice?" and the non-obvious question is "Should justice ought to be our concern anyway?"

When we think of justice, we generally think in terms of retribution. If someone wrongs another, the line goes, (1) the perpetrator should set things right as far as possible, for example, if he stole something it should be returned or if he destroyed something the victim should be monetarily compensated, and (2) the perpetrator should suffer some sort of harm himself commensurate with the suffering he inflicted. In cases like those of Pinochet and Saddam, clearly neither (1) nor (2) are possible. Great bodily suffering, of course, could be inflicted, but surely cruel and unusual punishment ought to be loathed for good moral reasons even when we seethe with disgust for people's decisions and actions.

So given that there is no chance for retribution of the classical variety, is death the only acceptable alternative? The line one often hears is that the killing is the one thing that we can give the families of the victims. Set aside whether attempts to satisfy the primal urge for revenge is a good in itself and whether they actually are satisfied by the execution, is it true that taking the life of the perpetrator is the only good that can be done for the families?

In South Africa, they chose differently. Perpetrators were seen to have value beyond a life that could be ended or bodies that could be incarcerated; they also had memories. A question some philosophers have been discussing is whether the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (a) traded truth for justice, allowing perpetrators to escape retribution if they could provide the families of victims with information about their loved ones and the circumstances surrounding their demise, or (b) engaged a notion of justice other than retribution. The idea that having to come clean for your actions, to admit them publicly before your peers is itself a form of justice different from that connected with punishment.

Saddam was executed for his atrocities. Pinochet lived out his natural life protected by allies placed in the government despite his atrocities. But in neither case did we get an honest accounting of what they had done. And that seems an additional harm to the victims.

Even in South Africa, the perpetrators of the most heinous offenses were not eligible for amnesty, and that is surely not what I am proposing here. I'm not saying what ought to have happened was some "come clean and we'll forgive and forget" type deal. But it does seem that there are questions in Chile and Iraq that could have been answered, that for the sake of the families should have been answered, and now never can. In the case of Chile, some in Spain and Britain tried unsuccessfully to intervene and create a forum where such truths would be brought out. In the case of Iraq, the rush to execute Saddam on charges not connected to his most horrific crimes seems almost designed to make sure none of the information came to light. Whether it was by design or not, it is now impossible for those families to ever really know what they might have known. For people who have suffered so much, it seems an additional injustice committed in the name of justice.