As always, the limits of sovereign power are on display in the US nation building experiment in Iraq. The execution of Saddam Hussein last January marked a major assertion of sovereignty by the troubled Shi'ite led government of the Green Zone. Now according to reporting by RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr. and ALISSA J. RUBIN in today's New York Times, a new round of executions of regime officials is on hold as Iraqi and American leaders worry out the implications of forceful execution or mercy. In its role as a tool of sovereignty making the death penalty is inevitably double edged, especially in a civil war situation. You become the King when you can execute rebellious barons (Friedrich III, Hapsburg emperor in the 15th century is a good example). The ability to reduce the former wielders of state power to lifeless bodies is as clear a demonstration of a revolutionary passing of power from one sovereign vehicle (the Baath party) to another (the government of Iraq).
At the same time, the killing of a leader respected by large portions (albeit a minority) or the population, and in violation of norms associated with military surrender is a dangerous thing. It can lead the aggrieved minority to view its differences with the state as irreconcilable (a good example is the hatred of the Cuban government among exiles stoked by the early wave of executions following the success of Castro's revolutionaries). An act of well timed mercy, in contrast, may provide the cultural cover for a reconciliation.
State building needs sovereignty (which capital punishment can provide at a high price) but it needs so much more than sovereignty. As an American military officer was quoted by the Times: "once you execute someone, you can't unexecute them."