Wednesday, January 10, 2007


I didn't support the Iraq war and I oppose the death penalty - but the nonstop outrage and criticism of the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein is puzzling. Somehow, most of our nation's newspapers and magazines overlooked the core of this story: An evil dictator was brought to justice - the people he tortured, murdered and oppressed turned around and put him on trial, then carried out the sentence. How often does this happen in our world? Pretty much never.

Yet The New York Times (in news and opinion pages alike) has relentlessly criticized nearly every aspect of the process, only paying lip service Saddam's heinous crimes. USA Today's editorial board criticized the trial and execution and then assessed the whole episode as basically inconsequential. (Tell that to the millions of Iraqis who suffered under Saddam). Oddly, most of the complaints ignored the many problems with the death penalty. Instead, critics were consumed by how unfairly Saddam was allegedly treated. Particularly distressing to this crowd was the "taunting" of the Butcher of Baghdad. Huh?

True, the trial and the execution were disorderly. And much of the trial's disorder was thanks to Saddam's narcissistic outbursts and the kidnapping and murders of witnesses and lawyers. Let's give Iraq's nascent democracy, which is struggling in the middle of a war, at least a little credit for managing to even hold a trial of their former dictator. To expect its justice system to function as ours at this point is wildly unreasonable.

Critics complained that there was a "rush to justice." Saddam was captured three years ago and went through two trials. That's a rush? And he was guilty. Nobody denies this. They didn't need to go any slower to find that out.

Saddam showed zero remorse, asking "Where is the crime, where is the crime?" during his trial for the death of 148 Shiites - where he was faced with testimony of survivors recounting the torture of parents in front of their children. He showed no emotion as witnesses told of Iraqi guards forcing live bodies through a mincing machine. Nor during testimony about a pregnant woman who had her legs tied together when she went into labor, forcing a slow and torturous death for her and her baby.

Other critics fretted that Saddam's Sunni supporters, who thrived as a privileged elite under his sadistic rule, were displeased with Saddam's treatment. That's a bit like complaining that many Serbs opposed the war-crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic.

The criticism that took the cake came from the usually reasonable Brian Lehrer at WNYC, who posed this question to his listeners: "If pardoning Richard Nixon was good for the nation's healing, then how could executing Saddam be good for Iraq?"

Well, gee: Saddam is responsible for the torture and deaths of millions. Nixon ordered a break-in and wiretapped phones, then tried to cover it up. The differences in the magnitude of the crimes seem painfully obvious.

But Lehrer's question came closest to revealing the unspoken view of virtually all the liberal critics: They don't really believe that Saddam was uniquely evil. That became even more clear when he asked if Saddam didn't deserve to be treated with more dignity. Bizarre. Most opponents of the death penalty - myself included - think it's inherently undignified. Are we suddenly supposed to think that having the executioners show respect would make it dignified?

And, again - opposition to the death penalty aside - why are we talking about the dignity due a brutal dictator? Instead, shouldn't we be delighting at least a little at the thought of Kim Jong-il or Robert Mugabe sleeping a little less soundly - knowing that the unthinkable could someday happen to them, that they too could be called to account for their crimes against humanity? That should be a prospect that liberal thought leaders - who one would think might stand up for the oppressed, not the oppressor - should embrace.



New Jersey is to consider cutting the word "idiot" from its constitution so that people with some mental disabilities won't be barred from voting. State Senate President Richard Codey has introduced a bill to remove language designed more than 150 years ago to prevent people suffering from mental illness or handicap from voting in national, state or local elections.

He wants to eliminate a section that says "no idiot or insane person should enjoy the right of suffrage" and substitute a reference to "a person who has been adjudicated by a court of competent jurisdiction to lack the capacity to understand the act of voting".

Senator Codey, a Democrat who was previously acting governor of New Jersey, said in a statement the term "idiot" was outdated, vague, offensive to many and might be subject to misinterpretation. He said individuals with cognitive or emotional disabilities might be capable of making decisions in a voting booth, and those people should not be discriminated against. "This is another big step toward removing the stigma of mental illness," he said.

The proposed changes will be included in a constitutional amendment which voters will be asked to approve in a statewide ballot in November. It must first be cleared by the state legislature.


All the young prudes

Sanctimonious, censorious, snobbish and anti-progress: why has radical youth protest gone off the rails? A comment from Britain

There was a time when youth (or "yoof", in patronising Janet Street-Porter speak) were considered the most free-thinking and radical section of society. With their penchant for kicking against the pricks - their parents, the authorities, and other assorted guardians of received wisdom and outdated morality - young activists developed a reputation for being mad, bad and at least a little bit dangerous. Not any more. Today's "radical" youth protesters are deeply conservative and censorious, wishing to hold society back, shut down debate and keep the uppity oiks in their place. In 2007, beware these young authoritarians, who make even our miserabilist leaders look positively progressive by comparison.

It is reported that the Evangelical Christian Union at Exeter University is taking legal action after being suspended from the student guild and banned from using student facilities. Why was it outlawed? Because the guild decided in its infinite wisdom that the Christian Union was intolerant (of gay people, for example) and thus cannot be tolerated - deeply ironic, I know. It's yet another student-led attack on freedom of speech, assembly and belief, which are becoming all too frequent on petty censorious campuses across the UK - which these days seem more influenced by Mary Whitehouse and her blue-rinsed followers than Che Guevara or any of the other beret-wearing icons of old.

Sanctimonious intolerance of "offensive" viewpoints is rampant among British student officials. Student unions frequently respond to controversy and offensiveness by reaching for the blue felt tip pen. In recent years the Sussex University students' union banned the Daily Mail for being "bigoted" (again with the irony), leading one Sussex student to complain that the union was "treating us like babies and it's offensive". The union at Sheffield University famously, or infamously, banned the playing of Eminem records at student dos because the rapper's use of words such as "fags" breaks the union's anti-homophobia policies. At the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in London, the union has banned Israeli embassy representatives from speaking because part of its union policy states that Zionism is racism, and racists should "not be given a platform". University is where boys become men and girls become women, free to think and act for themselves; yet unions insist on mollycoddling them like big overgrown babies in order to protect them from anything deemed remotely offensive.

Far from being a site of free thinking and free exchange of ideas, the university campus has become a laboratory for new forms of censorship and conformism. Indeed, student censoriousness sometimes leaks out into society at large. The government's religious hatred legislation - a serious and flagrant attack on the hard-won democratic right of our secular society to criticise and ridicule superstitious nonsense - can be seen as the logical consequence of a decade or more of student experimentation with censorship of words or images that cause "cultural offence" to certain groups. There's a similar trend in America, where free speech activist Wendy Kaminer has written of "the distressing number of young authoritarians" on US campuses. "Self-righteous intolerance of dissent remains distressingly common among supposedly progressive students on liberal campuses," says Kaminer, and the same is true here.

Outside of these clampdown-campuses, "young radicals" front campaigns that are more concerned with turning back the clock than pushing society forward and realising humanity's potential. One of today's most celebrated youthful campaign groups is Plane Stupid (you said it) which campaigns to "ground the plane". It wants big fat taxes to make flying more expensive; that is, less affordable for the mass of the population who only waste their time going on garish and drunken holidays to Spain and eastern Europe anyway. The erstwhile leader of Plane Stupid, Joss Garman, a 21-year-old student at censorious SOAS, says: "Our ability to live on the earth is at stake, and for what? So people can have a stag do in Prague."

Oh, that's right, global warming is being single-handedly caused by people like my brother, who recently spent three days and nights living it up on cheap beer (via a cheap flight) on a stag night in Prague. Never mind the fact that a recent study by The Economist found that aviation's contribution "to total man-made emissions worldwide is around 3%"; and that even in the world of transportation flying isn't the biggest carbon polluter (in America, for example, all forms of transportation contribute 27.4% of emissions; flying on its own causes 3.2% of emissions). No, these brave radical protesters would far rather target those cheap people who take cheap flights to cheap destinations that satisfy their cheap desires, rather than grapple with real questions about how we can satisfy people's needs and desires while also making the world a pleasant place to live in.

Flying is one of the most miraculous inventions of the past hundred years: it has broadened humanity's horizons and allowed us to explore the world and meet and get to know all sorts of peoples and cultures. Today's youth protesters want to put a stop to all that, and they even throw some anti-masses snobbery into the political pot for good measure. Nice.

Other youthful protesters demonise and protest against mass electricity production, another marvel of the modern age that has helped to make life more comfortable and enjoyable for vast swathes of humanity. Last year's demos against the Drax coal-fired power station in North Yorkshire were led by what one contributor to my website spiked labelled "radicals for austerity": people who want to switch off the lights and go back to simpler times (a political demand that is "simple" in both senses of the word).

Some radical youngsters throw their weight into protesting for animal rights and against vivisection, which is one of the most anti-humanist streaks in contemporary politics. Their radical animalism elevates the interests of monkeys over men, and depicts humans - especially of the science-studying variety - as wicked and evil. Animal rights activism sums up everything that is wrong with radical protest today, where youthful activists actively campaign against humans and human interests rather than in defence of progress and equality for people everywhere.

Of course, it isn't entirely the yoofs' fault: they have grown up in a society that seems increasingly illiberal and pessimistic, and perhaps unsurprisingly that is reflected in their (anti) political campaigning. And I remain optimistic about the new generation: hundreds of young people protested in Oxford to defend the building of an animal experimentation lab, and lots of ordinary students continue to react against patronising student union bans.

Tens of thousands of young people continue to explore the world (even if it is just Prague) in the face of ridicule from their better-off counterparts from leafier suburbs. In 2007, we should support such youthful expressions of ambition, experimentation and open-mindedness. Today, young people who want to kick against the pricks would do well to start by challenging the student censors and "plain stupid" anti-progressives who are all around them.


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