The Cruelty of Popular Government

A couple of months ago, I noted in this space a Saudi Gazette story I’d edited, an interview with a Saudi executioner, highlighting his role as a kind-of counselor to both the condemned as well as the families of victims. Especially important in the piece was the role of the executioner in letting the victim’s family know they can, under Saudi Arabia’s version of Islamic law, pardon the condemned (forgive me for borrowing wholesale from my previous blog entry):

The job of the executioner is not only to carry out the death sentence, Al-Bishi said. The swordsman is also a kind-of counselor, sometimes approaching relatives of a murder victim and reminding them they can pardon the convicted up until the very last moment. Al-Bishi related an incident when his father was an executioner and was preparing to carry out a death sentence on a young expatriate awaiting execution for killing a friend, who was an only son. The mother of the victim repeatedly declined to pardon the killer of her child.

“My father had a hunch that the heart of this bereaved mother could soften up,” Al-Bishi said. “[My father] walked up to her, with his sword in his hand, and told her that the head of the young man awaiting execution would separate from his body in a few seconds’ time, but that she could raise her hand any time before that if she decided to pardon the killer.”

“She was adamant still and as my father lifted the sword for the last time to go through with the execution, the mother of the victim raised her hand to motion to my father that she had pardoned the murderer,” Al-Bishi continued. “The crowd rushed towards her, cheering and saying that God the Almighty is great, and prayed for her to rest in paradise as a reward for her forgiveness.”

Three times, he’s been able to convince families of victims to pardon the murderers after everything was ready for the execution.

“I can tell from the expression on the faces of the victims’ family members if they are considering pardon,” Al-Bishi explained.

Late last week, I edited another piece on the wave of pardons currently being issued by King Abdullah:

Prisons all over the Kingdom have turned into beehives of activity since King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, pardoned thousands of inmates and ordered their release, according to a report in the Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat.

“I was convicted because I failed to repay a debt of SR 60,000 and I spent eight months in prison,” said 23-year-old H. Al-Harbi, who was released under the royal pardon. “I was released when the committee responsible for the release of the inmates reviewed my case and found that I was working as a driver for SR1,200 a month and caring for eight children.”

Al-Harbi said he has not seen his children since the day he was convicted.

Those pardoned include prostitutes, thieves, drug dealers and people convicted of illegal possession of alcohol. According to the report, thousands were cleared by a royal pardoning comission. All those interviewed were, of course, both grateful to the king and very repentent:

Released 57-year-old Saudi inmate S.W. said he was sent to prison for 14 years for selling drugs but that the King’s pardon released him after only seven years.

“After spending seven years in prison, my eldest daughter has graduated from university and got married. But I couldn’t share her happiness,” S.W. said. “The King’s pardon allows me to attend my son’s wedding party. For the sake of my children I will start a new life.”

The whole thing led me to thinking — why has no U.S. state governor or president been so magnanimous to pardon thousands of people convicted of relatively petty crimes? Is there something about “popular” government — and by that, I mean government that claims to rule “in the name of the people” — that makes it crueler, harsher, and less able or willing to be merciful and magnanimous?

Consider this: most of the governments of the last 150 years have, in some form or another, rules “in the name of the people.” Fascism, socialism, Social Democracy (in all its forms), Arab socialism, even Islamism (to a very limited extent), all claim to rule in the name of “the people.” We know that such governments have been among the most costly and murderous in human history. They have demanded absolute obedience of citizens, the right to conscript their bodies, minds and lives, to annihilate human beings because they are inconvenient or don’t fit in with the plans of those who rule in the name of the people.

In contrast, the Saudi state takes as it’s constitution (such as it is) the Qur’an and the monarch, while the Saudi system is become a proper state system and the monarch a senior civil servant of sorts, gets his right to rule from God, and is accountable only to God. This is not the same as the Western “divine right of kings” because the king is not soveriegn in the same way. He does not “own” everything (even though the Arabic word malik descends from the verb MLK, which means to own or be sovereign) in the same way Western kings did, though the result is still much the same.

So, you would think that popular government would be more merciful and autocratic government that doesn’t claim to represent the people would be much less merciful. Yet that does not appear to be the case? Why is that? Is there something in the popularly elected executive — a president, a governor — that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for that executive to exercise any significant amount of mercy or forebearance? Conversely, is it easier for someone who holds power BUT is not theoretically or ideologically accountable to “the people” to be merciful? I don’t know, but it is interesting to note that American elected executives seem only to issue pardons when they won’t ever have to face voters again.

I’ve come to conclusion, of late, that popular government, aside from being a fraud, is an evil in and of itself. I have also come to accept Hans Hermann Hoppe’s view that limited monarchy (which the Saudi state is rather rapidly marching away from), in which individual rights and responsibilities are guaranteed as much by culture and custom as they are by law (or moreso), is the best way to rule large collections of people (if they must be ruled — Hoppe’s caveat and mine as well).

However, I continue to remain a big believer in self-government, and at some point in time will explain why popular government, known to most of us as “democracy,” is not the same thing.