Even those who deserve to die should be given dignity
The happiest face that can be put on the recent botched executions in Iraq is that the new government is inexperienced in killing, unlike Saddam Hussein and his henchmen, who raised killing to a science.
Inexperience, however, is no excuse for conducting haphazard executions.
The sectarian taunting that went on at Saddam's execution only burnished his image among his supporters and gained him sympathy in much of the world.
Iraqi officials waited nearly two weeks before executing two of Saddam's accomplices, including a half-brother, and took steps to assure that there would be no heckling or exaltation.
Unfortunately, something even more gruesome happened. A miscalculation in the length of the hangman's rope resulted in the decapitation of Barzan Ibrahim, Saddam's half-brother. Hangmen are expected to calculate the proper length of the rope so that the drop is not too short or too long. Too short and the neck is not snapped, leaving the condemned to slowly strangle. Too long, and the corpse is decapitated.
Except among those who believe that execution is wrong under any circumstances, there can be no question that Saddam, Ibrahim, his former intelligence chief, and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, former head of Iraq's Revolutionary Court, deserved to die.
But executions must be carried out properly. Even condemned monsters deserve a degree of dignity in the final hour, and their bodies should be treated with respect. Justice and civilized behavior demand as much. To be recognized as legitimate, a government must conduct itself properly, even when carrying out something as potentially inflammatory as an execution, perhaps especially at that time.
Saddam, Ibrahim and al-Bandar were convicted for their part in the indiscriminate slaughter of 148 Shiites in Dujail after an assassination attempt on the dictator that may or may not have been connected to the town.
Ibrahim, according to testimony, walked around the town in a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and jeans with a sniper rifle, picking off any citizens unlucky enough to cross his sights. Some Shiites saw his decapitation not as a hangman's error, but as divine intervention -- the last opportunity for Ibrahim to get what he deserved on earth.
They may think what they like; we suspect that if the rope had been 51/2 feet rather than 8 feet, Ibrahim would have died quickly and would have gone to his grave in one piece.
There are more executions in Iraq's future. A fourth defendant in the Dujail killings has been sentenced to death.
More than 100 former members of Saddam Hussein's regime will stand trial this year in the deaths of tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims during an uprising after the 1991 Gulf War.
Some crimes are so great and are conducted on such a scale with such utter contempt for other human beings that only execution is an appropriate response.
The Iraqi government faces the challenge of seeking justice rather than retribution. And for the sake of its standing on the world stage, it must do a better job in the future of carrying out the sentences of its courts.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said neutral observers would be welcome at future executions. Though some human rights groups may find such duty objectionable on principle, they should make themselves available.