On the silent video of Saddam Hussein’s final moments broadcast worldwide, you can see one of the masked hangmen in a leather jacket, gesturing an explanation to the bound dictator of why he might cover his neck with a scarf even if he declines the hood. Saddam accedes to the executioner’s counsel–for comfort in his last seconds? Vanity about his own corpse?–bows his head slightly, and the black scarf is affixed before the noose is placed over it.
If Iraqi executioners have a particular expertise with the gallows, it is because Saddam gave his country so much practice. Hanging, shooting, gassing, beating, Saddam and his agents were masters of them all. Saddam, depraved and sadistic, was the polar opposite of the banal bureaucratic evil Hannah Arendt famously saw in Adolph Eichmann.
Yet that is precisely why Saddam’s show trial and rushed hanging, far from elevating the rule of law, were so in tune with everything else askew in American-occupied Iraq.
Iraq’s politicians and their impatient US handlers wanted the theater of a Saddam trial but the assurance of Saddam’s certain, fast exit from the stage. Like the death penalty in the US–where feckless governors get to look tough by signing death warrants–it was all about politics. Saddam’s execution was a chance for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to appear decisive–after a year in which he has conceded much of his country’s governance to death squads and militias. Saddam’s hanging permitted President Bush to praise “how far the Iraqi people have come”–while Iraq’s ongoing catastrophe, with Saddam three years gone from the scene, has Bush’s own generals and party leaders in revolt.
Indeed, the televised spectacle of Saddam’s hanging obscured just how much his trial represented an opportunity missed–an opportunity missed for Saddam’s victims, for Iraq and for the claims of history.
The idea that despots can be held legally accountable for war crimes, genocide and violations of human rights is one of the great political innovations of the last sixty years. Nuremberg was the wellspring; In South Africa it was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission; in the Balkans and Rwanda, the UN tribunal. For Chile, it took Spain’s victim-rights laws to first pry open the books on Augusto Pinochet, commencing an accounting which continued until Pinochet’s death by natural causes this month. The International Criminal Court, without US signature, is already at work in Darfur.
Trials, tribunals, truth commissions. Whatever the form, there is plenty of evidence that establishing the facts of atrocity, accurately laying out lines of accountability, aids in democratic transition, helps dampen cycles of generalized revenge and even brings some relief to traumatized survivors. One signal study in Chile, for instance, showed measurable mental-health benefits for Pinochet victims who testified before a truth commission compared with those who did not.
But Saddam’s trial and execution were built for speed–not truth, reconciliation or accountibility. The Iraqi occupation court’s decision to prosecute him and execute him for the killings of 148 Shias from the town of Dujail in the 1980s–not his manifold atrocities in the Iran-Iraq war, not for the gassing of the Kurds–may have appeared a sensible legal expedient. In fact, it had a distinct political effect: to prevent Saddam’s trial from becoming a trial as well of decades of US policy. Banished from the Iraqi courtroom was any obstreperous reminder by the defendant of the Reagan Administration’s realpolitik reinforcement of Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war, the most brutal era of his regime. Gone was any inadvertent mention of how Margaret Thatcher’s Britain supplied Saddam with the poison gas he used against the Kurds, or any hint of the Presidents from Gerald Ford forward who sold out Kurdish aspirations. No Iraqi courtroom will be troubled by reminders of the cost to ordinary Iraqis of all those years of US-driven sanctions.
If Washington and Bagdhad were seriously interested in de-Saddamizing Iraq, after the Dujail trial they would have insisted that the dictator be confronted in courtrooms with his wider atrocities–the subject of years of labor by human-rights forensic investigators. That would have been the Nuremberg way. That would have given Saddam’s living victims a voice, and honored the stories of the dead. It would have shown Iraqis–and the world–that justice is about more than the shortest distance from a presidential palace to the end of a rope.
(It would also have revealed the robust debate about capital punishment among Iraq’s present-day leaders, especially among Europe-identified Kurds. President Jalal Talabani, deputy prime minister Barham Saleh and a host of lesser officials see Iraq’s gallows as relics of the Baathist era. One of L. Paul Bremer’s smarter moves in the earliest days of US occupation was to suspend capital punishment, trying to lay down a clear marker signifiying the end of the Saddam way of governing by noose and cattle prod.)
But that’s not reality. The reality was a trial and hanging which delivered neither legal justice nor narrative justice: neither the example of a fair and transparent proceeding nor the satisfaction of a historical accounting. The reality was an execution driven by two leaders, Maliki and Bush, each desperate to persuade themselves that they still hold sway over imploding Iraq.
Six American soldiers and sixty-eight Iraqi civilians died in roadside bombings on Saturday. It was, in other words, a routine morning in American-occupied Bagdhad. The fact that Saddam Hussein dropped from the gallows at dawn changed nothing.