History and Hussein's Hanging

The reactions to the hanging of Saddam Hussein have been far less enthusiastic than those that greeted the fall of his regime, or his later capture by the Americans.

The reactions to the hanging of Saddam Hussein have been far less enthusiastic than those that greeted the fall of his regime, or his later capture by the Americans. Hanging political leaders is almost a thing of the past, and in most democratic nations there is even a constitutional prohibition of such an act.

Saddam Hussein was a cruel enemy, both for the Americans and for ourselves, and his exit from the political arena was very welcome. Nevertheless, his death by hanging is problematic.

I am troubled by how the hanging will be viewed 20 or 30 years from now, both in Iraq and in the United States. In order to try and assess that, let me take our readers on a little visit to look at the issue of hangings in Iraq's neighbor, Turkey.

On May 27, 1960, the Turkish army deposed the prime minister at the time, Adnan Menderes. He was a great friend of the West, brought Turkey into NATO, fought alongside the United States in Korea, and toward the end of his term even signed a secret agreement with Israel. He was not popular among the military or the Turkish left. He was an avowed capitalist and strengthened the business sector, but there was concern in Turkey that there would be a growth in the social gap and a decrease in freedom of speech.

Rumbles of criticism began to be heard and Menderes tried to stifle them. Street demonstrations, especially of students, started; at one of them, on April 28, 1960, the police shot and killed five demonstrators. Menderes' trial lasted about a year, and in August 1961, he and two of his senior cabinet ministers were sentenced to death and duly hanged.

No one in Turkey would hang Adnan Menderes today, not only because he has gained posthumous respect in the eyes of the Turkish public, but because capital punishment has been abolished in contemporary Turkey.

There is one leader that Turkey would very much like to see on the gallows: Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan. The democratic West asked Turkey not to hang him. More than that: The enlightened democratic West, champion of human and prisoners' rights, asked Turkey to abolish capital punishment altogether. Turkey gritted its teeth and ended public hangings, in an attempt to be like the European democracies.

In the eyes of the Turks, Ocalan is a far greater criminal than Saddam Hussein. They blame him for the murder of 30,000 people, but his life is not in danger, because Europe asked that it be that way.

The United States, Europe's chief ally, has a different scale of values. America still has the death sentence. Turkey of today could be accepted into the European Union; however, the United States, leader of the free world, would not meet its criteria.

The history books have meanwhile recorded two events: that the United States hanged Saddam Hussein, while Europe saved Abdullah Ocalan. I am willing to wager that in another 20 or 30 years, the United States will be embarrassed by the hanging of the Iraqi dictator, and Europe will be proud of having saved Abdullah Ocalan. The difference between the two democratic continents does not lie in their level of compassion (an important word in the European political lexicon). Europe is geographically closer to the Middle East, and understands it far better than the Americans. It is possible that Europe also has a better understanding of the depths of the human soul.

Still, my wager is just a wager. It will take many long days before we know whether I was right.

Alon Liel teaches international relations and diplomacy and is former director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry.