I returned home from the Golden State Warriors game on Friday evening, December 29, flipped on my computer and read the news that Saddam Hussein had been executed in Baghdad for his crimes against humanity. My first reaction was “What a privileged life I lead. I just watched professional athletes play basketball while in other parts of the world people can only watch the harshest of realities play themselves out. I am fortunate. I am grateful.”

My second reaction was a certain sadness. As an opponent of the death penalty, I am saddened when there is an execution. In my mind I ask:

What good did that do?
Were any of the killer’s victims restored to life?
Is the world now a safer place?
Will this act of violence help break the cycle of violence that seems to grip the world?

Further, as a human being, I am saddened when another human being dies. Even the most brutal of dictators, which Hussein most certainly was, are loved by someone. Almost every human death fills the life of at least one person with grief. Human beings are not unmoved by the death of the dictator’s victims. Human beings are not unmoved by the death of the dictator.

My third reaction was a certain hope. A hope that even the sad story of Sadaam Hussein, the sad story of the suffering he inflicted on others, the sad story of his last days, will not be wasted. Perhaps another dictator, or would-be dictator, in another part of the world will see that no one is immortal, that no regime predicated on injustice can last forever, that no system can live permanently above the rule of law. Perhaps a Kurdish family having seen their loved ones murdered by Hussein will see that the world was not indifferent to their plight. Perhaps a persecuted community somewhere on our globe will find reason to persevere in the realization that the mighty do fall, that those who mistreat the poor are forced to answer for their crimes.

As I sit at my computer on Saturday afternoon, December 30, watch video of the noose being placed around Hussein’s neck, read reactions from the around the world and ponder my own ambivalence, I can only say that, for me, Hussein’s execution is best described as a very “gray” event. It is necessary to recognize that he killed ruthlessly. It is necessary to ponder what justice for a man like him looks like. It is necessary to admit that we live in a world that finds itself locked in a cycle of violence. It is necessary to wonder if this state sanctioned killing serves to break that cycle. It is necessary to note that I am fortunate to have the time, the energy, the freedom and the resources to engage in this reflection.

I cannot find it in myself to say “The world is a better place because Saddam Hussein is dead.” I cannot argue with those who would make that claim. Once again I am reminded that moral reasoning and ethical analysis are difficult arts, subjective acts. I am reminded that the world does not fit neatly into categories of right and wrong, just and unjust, moral and immoral. I find a certain comfort in concluding that this world demands of us a deep humility.

Prayers for the year ahead….