Sunday, 18 December 2016

On the summary execution of murderous tyrants and the good of a timely accounting.



Despite my dislike of capital punishment I find it hard to object to the summary execution of murderous tyrants such as Gaddafi. A short period of terror followed by a swift ignominious death is much less than they deserve. What they deserve are the torments of hell. Nor is the absence of a trial an injustice done them—what doubt have we of their guilt? If they are a focus for forces intent on reviving their tyranny, and those forces will dissipate or fail without them, killing them may also be a benefit and even a necessity. So if there is anything wrong in their summary execution it must be found elsewhere and must outweigh the risks of keeping them alive. It seems to me there is something to be said on this other side and it is to be found in the good of a timely accounting.


By that I do not mean a holding to account—execution does that. I mean the taking and keeping of a full and timely account of their wickedness. The fresh victims of communism are in part victims of the lack of such an accounting of Stalin and Mao. By contrast, the accounting of the monsters of German national socialism, Italian fascism and Japanese imperialism has served us well. In the latter cases, too, it is unclear to me that summary execution would have been wrong. But it would have deprived us of the detailed and timely taking of the account that took place through the war crimes tribunals.

Certainly such trials may provide only the barest ground for the full account that we want. This is no weakness at all: Much of its good is achieved by its timeliness and its creation thereby of time and receptivity for the full accounting. The trial will at least provide an index of the tyrant’s evil and establish the credibility of the testimony of victims; there is in addition the good of the victims’ testifying and the good for the victims of testifying.

And equally certainly, such trials may be conducted by a kangaroo court. This may be a wrong, but not because it is an injustice to the tyrant—it is probably an exact justice to him. The wrong is that lies destroy the only real additional benefit the trial offers,  and moreover a true accounting is delayed and made much harder by whatever success in deceit those lies may have. Additionally, a kangaroo court may also be the instrument of the next tyrant, and serve as distraction and deception.

So here is a subtle difficulty, since to have the account we need a mechanism of civilisation—a properly conducted trial. But how is such a mechanism to be in place at the overthrow of a tyrant by the people tyrannised over. People under a tyrant must make the best they can and consequently those ready and able to step in are unlikely to be untainted. Some who step in do not wish for the true accounting. Yes, an international tribunal may be an answer here…but not necessarily for the people who are most entitled to its benefit. Knowing the full mechanisms of the last tyranny places people on alert for the insidious encroachment of the next. If that knowledge is generated and held elsewhere, it may never reach the people who need it.

The benefits of timely accounts are indirect, unclear, slow to arrive and perhaps accrue more to civilisation in general than to the victims of the tyrant, whereas the benefits of summary execution are direct, clear and generally accrue to the victims, at least insofar as they may be safer and may take satisfaction in the fact, manner and timing of the tyrant’s death. So I don’t know whether the good of an accounting generally overrides the good of summary execution. That being said, I think the good of timely accounts may be very great indeed and that the middle east would greatly benefit from such accounts. Furthermore, it appears that it may only benefit from such accounts of its own making, since the evasion that the assertions of unflattering truths are mere expressions of western orientalist prejudice has been extremely successful. Gaddafi’s summary execution, then, had a cost, a very significant cost, and one that we may yet regret.

Originally at http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk

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