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, though personally I would have been far happier had he fallen into one of the meat grinders into which he, and his equally sadistic sons Uday and Qusai, dropped so many of his subjects.
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, observant Jews 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?
Needless to say much of the world does not view matters as I do. And not the Palestinians who benefited from Saddam's generous subsidies to the families of suicide bombers. The so-called civilized world joined in the chorus of condemnation. The European Union 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."
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. 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 has rightly noted the link between the Vatican's condemnation and Pope Benedict XVI's reception of the Iranian foreign minister, who was fresh from organizing Tehran'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 the horror of evil. And that loss of horror paves the way for further evil.
Jonathan Rosenblum is director of Jewish Media Resources, a Jerusalem-based Orthodox organization.