How I Would Torture Saddam Hussein

July 31, 2006    By: Jacob J @ 9:47 pm   Category: Atonement & Soteriology,Ethics,Theology

Sometimes people do unimaginable things to other people. When I hear of a horrific crime against an innocent child, my first reaction is sadness. The nightly news makes me cry routinely. My second reaction is anger. My sense of justice cries out for retribution on the criminal. Saddam Hussein provides a good example because his atrocities are already part of the public consciousness to some extent.

I can’t bring myself to repeat many of the things Saddam did, but he tortured thousands of people. He did things like rip teeth out with pliers and rape women in front of their husbands, and so on. When I internalize this, prison does not seem nearly bad enough of a punishment to satisfy my thirst for retribution. Not nearly bad enough.

But, when I ponder my desire for vengeance, I always end up concluding that it is an unrighteous desire. It may be necessary to lock criminals away, or even to kill them in some cases, but these things are justified based on our need to protect society, or to inspire reform in the criminal, or to create a deterrent to future crimes. When I cross the line from seeking one of these purposes to seeking retribution for its own sake, it seems that I lose my moral footing.

I have considered what it would take to satisfy my instinctive desire for retribution. For example, I have wondered if torture is a just punishment for the types of unspeakable violence carried out by Saddam on innocent men, women, and children. As I imagine and envision what it would really mean to torture him, I realize that I cannot condone torture for the sake of punitive justice, even for someone like Saddam Hussein. It simply strikes me as immoral to torture someone for the sake of punitive justice (i.e. it seems unjust).

I discover this problem, then, that the things I am willing to inflict on Saddam do not seem bad enough to satisfy my sense of justice, and yet, more severe punishments seem to go beyond justice. When I seek punishment for the sake of inflicting suffering, I begin to doubt my moral footing, yet, I find in my sense of justice the undeniable feeling that wicked people should suffer for the things they have done.

I believe this example illustrates why punitive justice is often portrayed as an unenlightened view of justice. We find within us a seemingly justified desire to inflict pain on the wicked, but we can find no appropriate way to fully satisfy this desire. The desire, we conclude, must be immoral, even though we may have first supposed it to be part of justice. And yet, punitive justice has the sanction of scripture and it seems to suggest that the person actually deserves something worse than I am comfortable inflicting. This is my dilemma.

One day it dawned on me that there is a type of punishment which is very terrible and which I am totally comfortable with:

Therefore if that man repenteth not, and remaineth and dieth an enemy to God, the demands of divine justice do awaken his immortal soul to a lively sense of his own guilt, which doth cause him to shrink from the presence of the Lord, and doth fill his breast with guilt, and pain, and anguish, which is like an unquenchable fire. (Mosiah 2:38)

But I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins. Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; …Yea, and …the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror. Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God (Alma 36:12-15)

These scriptures provided the answer to what it is that can satisfy my sense of punitive justice. The impenitent will be made to understand, fully understand, what they have done. What could be more terrible for Saddam than to fully comprehend the pain and agony he has caused his victims, with a conscience striped of defense, and the full weight of responsibility crushing down on him? I believe this experience will be intensely terrible, even worse than the torture I considered before, yet I am perfectly at peace with this execution of justice. This is how I would torture Saddam Hussein.

The key difference between this type of punishment and, say, pulling Saddam’s fingernails out one by one, seems to be that it is specifically designed to inspire reform. It inspires reform in a way no earthly punishment could do. Truly understanding the badness of what we have done makes us want to change. It is not really punishment for punishment’s sake.

The nature of justice plays prominently in our understanding of the atonement, and I continue to believe that much of our confusion about the purpose of the atonement is rooted in various incorrect beliefs about what justice demands. Justice, in an eternal and ultimate sense, is simply the law of the harvest as explained in Alma 41 and D&C 88. Punitive justice was introduced to solve a practical problem while we are in this “time granted unto man to repent, yea, a probationary time” in which eternal justice is temporarily suspended (Alma 42:4). Punitive justice works most perfectly as “remorse of conscience” for the purpose of making us aware of the ultimate consequences of our actions (Alma 42:16-18).

For a long time I couldn’t find a way to account for my sense of punitive justice. I was torn between feeling it was wrong and simultaneously feeling that it was indeed part of my innate sense of justice (which, if I can’t trust, then what can I?). Thinking about Saddam made me realize why it is so hard to make sense of punitive justice. In this life we lack the ability to inflict the kind of experience described in the scriptures above, so we are always left with the feeling that unrepentant criminals deserve something worse than what they are getting. Now I am able to square my sense of punitive justice with my commitment that justice never demands suffering for its own sake.

[Associated song: Noisepie – The Anger Song]


  1. Jacob: Do you define retributive justice as “suffering for its own sake”? When I reflect and see that I have done all kinds of evil things, things that cause pain for others and so forth, why shouldn’t I conclude that the remorse I feel is really merely unnecessary suffering and immediately refuse to feel such sorrow? I just conclude that I don’t need to inflict pain on myself so I go on my merry way refusing to worry about what I have done so long as I don’t do it again. Is that what you are suggesting — the only purpose of justice is make sure we don’t do it again?

    Comment by Blake — July 31, 2006 @ 11:08 pm

  2. It seems to me that punitive justice is more likely to bring out resentment and feelings of victimization in the punishee and less likely to bring about any reformation. While eternal justice is all about reformation in the criminal.

    I like the perspective in this post. Nice job.

    Comment by Kristen J — July 31, 2006 @ 11:16 pm

  3. The reason why revenge is immoral is that, as a rule, two wrongs can never make a right. And Lex talionis, where the retribution is more severe than what reformation and deterrence require, is indeed a revenge system. In my opinion the Lord never meets out more retribution or vengeance than that. Vengeance yes, revenge never.

    Of course withdrawing his spirit from the truly wicked is not retribution, it is rather the spiritual equivalent of exile or ostracism, withholding blessings or fellowship, not a retributive punishment at all. It is a good thing too, because retribution is expensive. I certainly would not want to be on the retribution detail for all eternity – we should be pleased that eternity will hardly require anything of the kind.

    Comment by Mark Butler — July 31, 2006 @ 11:45 pm

  4. Blake: Do you define retributive justice as “suffering for its own sake”?

    I prefer to call it punitive justice because “retribution” can refer to any sort of punishment which is justly deserved, whereas “punitive” specifically refers to something in which the aim is to inflict punishment.

    Basically, I arrive at my distiction through a thought process like the one I have described here. I have gone through a bunch of thought experiments to ask myself what sort of punishment is justified and whether such a punishment satisfies my innate feeling for what justice demands as far as punishment is concerned. If the point is to make someone “pay” for their sin by inflicting pain, that is punitive punishment as I define it. There is a sense we all have that people deserve to pay for their crimes/sins and this is what I call punitive justice.

    why shouldn’t I conclude that the remorse I feel is really merely unnecessary suffering and immediately refuse to feel such sorrow?

    This is a critical point, thanks for asking for clarification. It is more than just never doing something again. People can cease to do something because they no longer have the opportunity. What is really required is that you become the kind of person who would not have done it in the first place. The fact that you just did an evil thing means (conclusively) that you are not that kind of person yet. Hence, the remorse of conscience is necessary and you cannot just refuse to feel sorrow.

    However, we might ask if a person must feel remorse of conscience if they did the evil thing which caused pain accidentally and through no fault of their own. In that case, there will be remorse and sorrow, for sure, but it will be of a different kind. They will feel empathy for the person pained and likely they will wonder what they could have done to prevent it from happening. But, if it was truly no fault of their own, they do not need to feel remorse of conscience and to the extent they do feel it, someone should be reminding them to do exactly as you said: refuse to feel such sorrow.

    Comment by Jacob — August 1, 2006 @ 8:43 am

  5. Jacob: Nice post. I relate to basically everything you say. Perhaps this is indicative of who I am, but I wouldn’t trust my own introspection. On good days, I’m pretty OK with the forgiveness after a change in the offender has been made. On bad days, I want punitive justice, regardless of how “changed” the offender is and anything less than that feels to me like mercy is robbing justice. (Similarly, the parable of the workers in the vineyard—where some work all day and some only work half the day but everyone gets the same reward—sometimes doesn’t bother me, but sometimes does….)

    Comment by Robert C. — August 1, 2006 @ 6:07 pm

  6. Robert,

    I know what you mean about good days and bad days. I tried to think about it on both sorts of days, and I must admit that sometimes I was forced to conclude my desire for retribution did indeed go beyond justice.

    Comment by Jacob — August 1, 2006 @ 6:47 pm

  7. I agree wholeheartedly, Jacob. But perhaps even more important than the large scale cases are the smaller ones. We seem to feel the need to make justice on a daily basis, whenever we feel that someone has wronged us in some way. For example, when someone cuts you off or does something wrong to you in traffic, people feel the need to invoke a sort of “justice” with a honk, a yell, a gesture, or otherwise manifesting discontent. If we could just let go of our need to establish justice in our daily lives, I think we could cut out 99% of the anger we experience.

    Comment by Eric Russell — August 1, 2006 @ 8:40 pm

  8. Nice point Eric. Our desire to “get back” at people in everyday life is never healthy.

    Comment by Jacob — August 1, 2006 @ 9:09 pm

  9. I don’t know Eric. One full 10 second horn blast and the offender immediately gets the message and I feel purged — no anger left (usually I feel pleasantly giddy actually). Plus the offending/dangerous driver might think twice before dangerously or at least rudely cutting off an actually nice person next time so I am helping them out too. :-)

    Comment by Geoff J — August 1, 2006 @ 9:33 pm

  10. Let me give an hypoethetical to test your resolve. Do you suggest that if Saddam agreed not to do it again and express genuine sorrow that he did what he did int he first place that he: (1) is therefore blameless; (2) should not be punished in any way? If that occurred, would you suggest that we ought to let him go scott free?

    Comment by Blake — August 1, 2006 @ 10:03 pm

  11. Blake,

    Excellent, I like tests of resolve on topics like this.

    Your hypothetical doesn’t offer me the thing I require to let him go scott free. If all he does is promise not to do it again and show sorrow for what he has done then he is not off the hook (not by a long shot). As I said, the crucial question with regard to justice has to do with what kind of person he has become. If, by whatever means (it is a hypothetical after all), I can be sure that he has become the kind of person who would never have done it in the first place, then yes, I’ll let him go without further punishement.

    Now, I hasten to add that as a practical matter, there is no way for a person like Saddam (or a person like what I am assuming he is) to change from being evil to being celestial without suffering. If Saddam were somehow transformed into a good person there would have to be a transformation process and that process would inevitably involve suffering. So there is really no loop hole like the one you are hinting at in your hypothetical.

    But, what if it turned out Saddam was actually not an evil person and his behavior was actually due to a tumor pressing on a part of his brain that made him act the way he does, so that the removal of the tumor instantaneously transformed him into a good person without suffering or remorse? I would consider him blameless and I would not punish him in any way and I would let him go scott free.

    You see, the only way to get the instantaneous transformation is for him not to have been evil in the first place. If he was evil in the first place, then there will be suffering and pain and effort over a prolonged period of time to change into a new kind of person. That is just a fact about people in the universe as it exists. However much suffering and pain it takes to genuinely change him into a good person is the amount that justice demands.

    Alma 36 is a good scriptural example of this. Notice that at the moment Alma really changes his suffering stops quite abruptly (Alma 36:17-20). And of course, his behavior from that point on is evidence of the genuineness of his change.

    Comment by Jacob — August 1, 2006 @ 10:45 pm

  12. With a title like that, this post had some real potential.

    Comment by danithew — August 2, 2006 @ 4:17 am

  13. Danithew, Sorry to disappoint. I had to do my best to entice people to read my boring tomb on justice theory somehow…

    Comment by Jacob — August 2, 2006 @ 8:41 am

  14. Jacob. Where can I read your tomb? I was surprised to know that you had passed on. Why did you have something about justice theory put on your headstone anyway?

    Comment by Blake — August 2, 2006 @ 5:23 pm

  15. Ha! I was rushing out the door this morning when I fired off #13 (we drove back to beautiful Oregon today) and about two hours down the road I turned to my wife and said, “I think I wrote ‘tomb’ instead of ‘tome’ this morning which is going to be quite embarrassing.”

    Comment by Jacob — August 2, 2006 @ 11:51 pm

  16. Since we’re talking about boring tombs…I was in a cemetary recently and saw a headstone that said,”Born:1930 Died:1990 ‘Have a Good Day'”. And the interesting thing is that I WAS HAVING A GOOD DAY!

    Comment by Hal — August 8, 2006 @ 11:17 am