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A Defense of Dicker

By James Taranto
January 4, 2007

In an item yesterday, we faulted Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch for his statement, in objecting to Saddam Hussein's execution, that "the test of a government's commitment to human rights is measured by the way it treats its worst offenders. History will judge these actions harshly." This prompted a defense of Dicker from reader Bob Koelle:

I think you seriously mischaracterized Richard Dicker's remarks. What he said is common pabulum, but not inaccurate.

I don't think history will long remember how Saddam was executed. But Dicker's not making an inverse statement--the worse the criminal, the better the treatment he should receive. That's nonsense. He's talking about having a "floor" of acceptable behavior for everyone, regardless of how vile he is. For example, while one could be happy to see Timothy McVeigh walk to the gas chamber, it would be unseemly to have a jeering crowd throwing rotten fruit at him as he went.

That's not out of respect for McVeigh, but out of respect for the solemnity and seriousness of putting someone to death. Such solemnity and seriousness is also a protection for the executioners' souls. These events should not be fun, even if you believe in their necessity.

In Dicker's case, I suppose he wouldn't want anyone put to death. That amounts to the lowest common denominator that he would apply to anyone. Why do you suggest that he wants to elevate Saddam? Were you speaking tongue-in-cheek? I suppose his choice of pabulum was clumsy; replace the words "worst offender" with "most vulnerable" and it's more correct. Why not just attack his poor choice of verbiage than make an absurd claim of a "monstrous moral inversion"?

Up to a point, we agree. Opposition to capital punishment is a respectable point of view, if (in our opinion) a wrongheaded one. And it would have been better if Saddam had been put to death in a more solemn manner--although, as reader Carl Friddle writes, "if Iraq has not yet reached the pinnacle of human dignity, whose fault is that, exactly?"

It's also true that Dicker's statement would have made sense if he had said "most vulnerable" instead of "worst offenders," and, yes, it is true that prisoners of the state are vulnerable by virtue of others' having seized control over their lives (and notwithstanding the deservedness of this condition).

But there is a huge difference between "worst offenders" and "most vulnerable," even if the two categories overlap. "Worst offenders" excludes the very sick, the very old, infants, children and others who are unable to fend for themselves--unless they also happen to be mass murderers.

We assumed that Dicker chose his words advisedly. But does it reflect better upon him if he did not--if he can casually and unconsciously draw an equivalence between a mass murderer and society's "most vulnerable"? It seems to us that this would indicate at best an intellectual slovenliness that reflects a complete lack of seriousness about human rights.

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