The last time I saw pictures of a man in need of a haircut being displayed as a trophy of the American Empire it was Che Guevara, stretched out dead on a table in Vallegrande, a village in the Bolivian mountains. In those edgier days, in late 1967, the Bolivian Army high command wanted him dead, the quicker the better, though the CIA wanted him alive for interrogation in Panama.
After a last chat with the CIA’s Felix Rodriguez, George Bush Sr.’s pal of Iran/contra notoriety, a Bolivian sergeant called Mario Terán shot Che in the throat, and Rodriguez got to keep his watch. They chopped off Guevara’s hands for checking, to make sure the ID was correct. Years later, his skeleton, sans hands, was located and flown back to Havana for proper burial.
“It is better like this,” Guevara told Rodriguez at the end. “I never should have been captured alive,” showing that even the bravest weaken at times. At the moment of his capture, a wounded Guevara had identified himself, telling the Bolivian soldiers he was Che and worth more to them alive than dead.
Back in 1967 most of the world mourned when Che’s capture and death seized the headlines. A million turned out in Havana to listen to Fidel Castro’s farewell speech. It’s been downhill ever since. The revolutionary cause has mostly gone to hell in a handcart, and the next time America’s Most Wanted came out with his hands up, badly in need of a haircut, it was a mass murderer called Saddam Hussein, helped into power by the CIA a year after Guevara’s death. “I’m the president of Iraq,” he said, and then tried to cut a deal.
I went straight from Monday morning news clips of the US Army’s film of Saddam having his teeth checked to have my own teeth cleaned by Tom, an oral hygienist in Santa Rosa, Northern California. To try to deflect Tom from his stern rebukes for my own flossing failures, I mentioned the footage of Saddam. Though he gave no professional opinions on the state of Saddam’s gums, it turned out Tom had spent a couple of years in Basra in southern Iraq imparting the elements of oral hygiene to the locals. “I’d point out to them that their gums were bleeding, and they’d sigh and say it was Allah’s will.” Then, like millions round the world, we (though, of necessity, I did most of the listening) reviewed the various options awaiting Saddam.
There were plenty of pieties in the opinion columns that morning about the need for a manifestly independent tribunal where Saddam could be accorded every legal courtesy and the administration of justice would be scrupulous.
It was impossible to read this claptrap without laughing, since that same morning Wesley Clark was testifying in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a body conjured into existence by the UN Security Council. As being anything other than a US puppet, ICTY was looking pretty slutty that morning, since Washington had successfully bullied the court into allowing Clark to testify in the absence of public or press, in what the ICTY demurely termed a “temporary closed session,” with delayed transmission of the transcript, to allow the US government to “review the transcript and make representations as to whether evidence given in open session [sic] should be redacted in order to protect the national interests of the US.” Further to protect the interests of General Clark, he would only have to endure tightly circumscribed cross-examination by Milosevic, a feisty inquisitor.
All the United States wants is for Saddam to be hauled into some kangaroo court and, after a brisk procedure, in which Saddam will no doubt be denied opportunities to interrogate old pals from happier days, like Donald Rumsfeld, be dropped through a trapdoor with a rope tied round his neck, maybe with an Iraqi, or at least a son of the Prophet, pulling the lever.
These pretenses at judicial propriety are absurd. I prefer the posture of the Arab-American woman who said Saddam should be put in a cage and drowned with spit. If it’s a demonstration of power we’re after, let’s go to the history books and check on an execution in 1571 that set the Christian world abuzz with horror for centuries thereafter and helped give Islam (Turkish division) a somewhat undeserved reputation for Oriental refinement in the cruelest arts of killing. (Undeserved? Check out Joan of Arc’s earlier execution by Christians, in effect a pioneering exercise in slow cooking.)
For months the Ottoman hosts of Islam had been trying to capture the city of Famagusta, on the island of Cyprus. Under the brave leadership of their Venetian commander, Marcantonio Bragadino, the garrison held on, but finally came the moment of surrender. Pledges of fair treatment of prisoners were made and Bragadino led out his defeated forces, to be greeted with courtesy by Lala Mustafa Pasha. It’s unclear what happened next. It may well have been an impolitic crack by Bragadino, taken the wrong way by the sensitive Turk. At all events the pasha decided to make an example of Bragadino, just to remind the world who’s boss–the message the United States wants any trial of Saddam to demonstrate.
Three times Bragadino’s decapitation was ordered, the sword flourished then laid aside. His ears and nose were cut off, his body mutilated. For ten days he was forced to carry baskets of dirt in front of the pasha, and then kiss the ground. Finally he was taken to the main square of Famagusta, tied to the stocks and skinned alive. The skin was then stuffed with straw and paraded around on a cow, with a red umbrella over it as a sign of contempt. When the pasha returned in triumph to the Golden Horn, the stuffed skin was tied to the bowsprit.
Now that’s what I call a robust demonstration of political power. (The Christians got their own back later that year at the battle of Lepanto.) No nonsense about “tribunals,” international law, dispassionate judges. It’s actually the plain, blunt approach George W. Bush affects to favor. He should pick a skinner from one of the Texas abattoirs and head for Baghdad.