The National Catholic Review
The Baghdad ExecutionsThe execution of Saddam Hussein by hanging on Dec. 30, followed two weeks later by the hanging of his half-brother, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, former head of Saddam’s secret police, and Awad Hamad al-Bandar, the chief judge of Saddam’s revolutionary court, made a mockery of the attempt to restore a sense of justice to the troubled history of Iraq. The manner in which the executions were carried out compromised any pretensions of the Maliki government that it was concerned for even-handed justice amid continuing sectarian violence. Inevitably, the United States, as the sustaining patron of the present Iraqi regime, suffered a further loss to its moral credibility. Even Britain, like the other nations of the European Union, opposed the executions as a matter of principle. In the words of Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace, the execution would punish a crime with another crime.

By insisting that the death sentence be carried out immediately, the Maliki government forfeited the opportunity to establish through further trials a full record of Saddam Hussein’s long and oppressive regime. Instead, images of the former dictator meeting his death with dignity in the face of the insults of his Shiite executioners set off a wave of sympathy in the Arab and Muslim world. Two weeks later, the unintended decapitation of Saddam’s half-brother once again stained the integrity and the competence of the Maliki government at a time when President Bush insists that the Iraqi Prime Minister will be a reliable partner in a new strategy for a way forward in Iraq.

The international reaction to the Baghdad executions is an uncomfortable reminder that the United States finds itself in strange company in continuing to defend the legitimacy of the death penalty. In 2005, according to Amnesty International, 94 percent of the executions that took place around the world occurred in China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United States.

A Point of LightThe press and television batter the public with bad news from Iraq every day. Now and then, however, there is a brief moment of light amid this dark torrent. One such item was a story about Chris Walsh, a 30-year-old Navy medic serving with the Marines in Fallujah. This was reported by Kevin Cullen in The Boston Globe last month and was then picked up on Dec. 8 by the ABC-TV evening news for its Person of the Week segment.

Chris Walsh and his companions were on patrol in June when they found in a rundown house a woman with a desperately sick infant. The child, called Mariam, was a few months old and suffered from a condition in which the bladder develops outside the body. Without surgery she would die.

Chris Walsh kept in constant touch with the baby and her mother and worked to secure transportation for Mariam to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He himself was killed last Sept. 4 when a bomb exploded under the Humvee in which he was riding. To honor him and their other dead, the marines of his battalion took charge of the case; and in October Mariam was flown to Boston for successful surgery.

Maureen Walsh, Chris’s mother, came from her home in Kansas to see the child and the grandparents who had accompanied her because her mother was too weak to travel. Speaking in Arabic, the grandfather said to Mrs. Walsh: God sent Chris to Mariam. So she will live.

Greater LoveIt was a dramatic moment at St. John’s Cathedral in Warsaw, Poland. On Jan. 7, the newly appointed archbishop, Stanislaw Wielgus, resigned at his own installation Mass, shocking onlookers and prompting cries of Stay with us! The archbishop had earlier admitted his involvement with Poland’s Secret Service during the Communist era, while maintaining that he never spied on anyone. The case is murky, with some pointing to a document praising Wielgus for identifying another priest and others noting that Secret Service agents regularly embellished their reports. Still, a dossier faxed to the Vatican on the eve of the installation was sufficiently compelling to prompt Pope Benedict XVI to request the resignation.

In the midst of this murkiness, it may be helpful to recall the clear example of another Polish priest who lived during the same time. On Oct. 19, 1984, the Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko, age 37, an adamant foe of Communism, was beaten and murdered by the Secret Service. His body, weighed down with stones, was tossed into a local reservoir and recovered two weeks later. A thin man who suffered from poor health, the priest acted as pastor to the workers in Solidarity, the trade union championed by Pope John Paul II. Today Father Popieluszko is revered as a martyr throughout Poland, and the cause for his canonization proceeds in the Vatican. In one of his sermons he asked, Whose side will you take? The side of good or the side of evil? Truth or falsehood? Love or hatred? The martyr’s cry continues to challenge the Polish church and all Catholics of our time.

Recently in Current Comment