Life presents us with some strange ethical issues, but few can be quite as bizarre as the debate that has erupted over the question of whether the popular English tabloid The Sun was right or wrong to have published photographs of Saddam Hussein in his skivvies.
Before I weigh in on this issue, let's begin by listening to the case made by the editors of The Sun justifying their action.
When the first round of pictures appeared, The Sun argued that the snapshots of the former dictator would deal "a death blow" to the insurgency in Iraq: if the militants could just take a glimpse at Saddam standing around in his underpants, they would instantly abandon their cause, and forthwith desist from blowing innocent people up. Hence The Sun's decision to publish these photographs was a purely altruistic act, designed to end bloodshed in Iraq -- perhaps even deserving of the next Nobel Peace Prize.
With the publication of the second round of pictures, The Sun blasted those who had criticized them for publishing the first round, arguing in effect, "After what this man has done, who cares what public humiliation he is put through? He deserves no less. Who can take seriously the human dignity of a man who was careless of the human dignity of millions of his subjects?"
Now what are we to make of these two arguments?
The "death blow to the insurgency" argument is not worthy of serious consideration. The Sun might print a front page showing Saddam Hussein's genitalia in graphic detail, but does anyone really believe that this would make a dent in the insurgency? Would al-Zarqawi, for example, give a hoot? In which case, we are forced to ask, Did the editors of The Sun really believe they were dealing a crushing blow to the insurgents, or were they simply trying to make a fast buck?
It is hard to resist the inference that The Sun's editors were simply out to sell copies of their newspaper by publishing semi-nude pictures of Saddam Hussein, in much the same way they have long been accustomed to using semi-nude pictures of beautiful young woman to sell their immensely popular tabloid. Half naked girls sell; so why not half naked aged dictators?
Yet there is an obvious problem, however, with this interpretation. We know why half naked girls sell -- they are sexually alluring. But can anyone suppose that the editors of The Sun decided to publish the picture of Saddam in his underwear in order to appeal to the prurient interest of The Sun's target audience? Not bloody likely. In which case, to what emotions and passions were the editors of The Sun trying to appeal by publishing pictures of an old dictator in a state of undress?
The editors of The Sun have thoughtfully answered this question for us. In the captions that accompanied the photos, they described Saddam Hussein as "a pathetic figure as he washed his trousers in jail." He is a man who "once sat on thrones and treated himself as a king," but who now "sits astride a plastic pink chair while he carries out the chores of a laundry maid." All in all, the editors tell us, the surreptitiously taken snapshots of Saddam permit "a first fascinating insight into his pathetic life behind bars."
You will notice that the editors of The Sun use the word "pathetic" twice in their characterization of the pictures they have published, and it is this word that says it all. Pathetic comes from pathos, which means the inner stirrings of our passions; and it is not hard to guess what passions The Sun was trying to arouse in its readership -- namely, the passions associated with rejoicing over the humiliation of an enemy. They wished their readers to gloat over the pictures. They published the pictures simply to humiliate Saddam Hussein.
The Sun's defense against this charge has been to argue that Saddam Hussein deserves humiliation. Indeed, considering what Saddam Hussein deserves to have happen to him, the publication of photos of him is the merest trifle. This is a man who killed thousands of men, women, and children. Here is a dictator who deserves to be shot by a firing squad or hanged by the neck -- so why complain about a few intimate photos of him splashed around the world? Why not humiliate a man who humiliated so many others? Why on earth should anyone pity him?
But that's just the problem. By humiliating anyone in public, we invariably end up creating pity for him. That is why Oliver Cromwell permitted King Charles the First to be dressed like a king and to act like a king up until the final moments when his head was chopped off. The worst thing you can do with a fallen ruler is to make people feel sorry for him in his fall. The emotion of pity is deeply rooted in us, and it is often even more inexplicable in its actions than the emotions associated with sexual desire. We are often deeply stirred by compassion when we least expect to be.
To emphasize the pathos in a man's life is to invoke compassion for him. To show his pathetic side is the best way of getting us to feel sorry for him. If the editors of The Sun were trying to keep us from pitying Saddam Hussein, then the last thing they should have done was to present him as "a pathetic figure" living out "his pathetic life behind bars."
The problem with The Sun photos is not that they dehumanize Saddam; the problem is that they humanize him far too much. They turn him into a pathetic old man, alone, friendless, reduced to doing "the chores of a laundry maid" and sitting on "plastic pink chairs." They make him a figure that arouses our sympathy and our human interest -- and it does this even in the hearts of those whose brains are fully convinced of Saddam's wickedness. Who can passionately hate such a harmless old man?
That is why The Sun was dead wrong to publish the pictures of Saddam Hussein. They make us forget the tyrant and focus only on the lonely and pathetic old man. They have made even the hardest-hearted of us feel a twinge of pity where few of us expected to find one.