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 Baathist state made a cult of them all. Depraved and sadistic, Saddam’s was the polar opposite of the banal bureaucratic evil Hannah Arendt famously saw in Adolf Eichmann.
That is precisely why the show trial and videotaped hanging that ended the dictator’s life, far from elevating the rule of law, were so dangerously in tune with all else askew in US-occupied Iraq. Iraq’s impatient politicians and their US handlers wanted the legitimacy conferred by a Saddam trial but the assurance of Saddam’s certain, fast demise. In the United States, feckless governors get to look tough by signing death warrants. In Iraq, Saddam’s hasty execution was a chance for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to appear decisive–after a year in which he conceded his country’s governance to death squads and militias. Saddam’s hanging permitted George W. Bush to make a show of going to bed undisturbed, while Iraq’s ongoing catastrophe, with Saddam three years gone from the scene, has Bush’s own generals and party leaders in revolt.
Iraq’s leaders, it is clear, made efforts to cover up the embarrassing truth. Official video released within hours had no soundtrack and showed only the masked executioners arranging the noose on the dictator’s neck; officials promoted grossly sanitized accounts of the final moments. The Shiite executioners’ taunts, Saddam’s ripostes, the toothless cries for dignity from a lone witness–all became evident only in a cellphone video that, however grotesque, at least portrayed the entire judicial exercise for the lynch party it was.
It could have been different. The idea that despots can be held legally accountable for war crimes, genocide and violations of human rights is one of the few genuine political innovations of the past 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 pry open the books on Augusto Pinochet, commencing an accounting that continued until Pinochet’s recent death from natural causes. The International Criminal Court (from which the United States still, scandalously, withholds its signature) is already at work on Darfur. Whatever the form, there is plenty of evidence that establishing the facts of atrocity and accurately laying out lines of accountability aid in democratic transition, help dampen cycles of generalized revenge and can bring some relief to traumatized survivors.
But Saddam’s trial and execution were built for speed–not truth, reconciliation or accountability. The Iraqi occupation court’s decision to prosecute him and execute him for the killings of 148 Shiites from the town of Dujail in the 1980s–not for his manifold atrocities in the Iran-Iraq war or the gassing of the Kurds–may have appeared a sensible legal expedient. But it had a distinct political effect: preventing Saddam’s trial from also becoming a trial of decades of US policy. Banished from the Iraqi courtroom was any reminder of the Reagan Administration’s realpolitik encouragement of Saddam during his war with Iran, the most brutal era of his regime. Gone was any inadvertent mention of how Margaret Thatcher’s Britain supplied Saddam the poison gas he used against the Kurds, or any hint of the Presidents from Gerald Ford forward who inflamed and then sold out Kurdish aspirations.
If Washington and Baghdad were seriously interested in de-Saddamizing Iraq, after the Dujail trial they would have insisted that the dictator be confronted in the courtroom 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 also have revealed the robust debate about capital punishment among Iraq’s current leaders, especially among Europe-identified Kurds: President Jalal Talabani, Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih and a host of lesser officials see Iraq’s gallows as relics of the Baathist era.
But that’s not what happened. Instead there was a spectacle of sectarian vengeance that delivered neither legal justice nor narrative justice, neither the example of a fair and transparent proceeding nor the satisfaction of a historical accounting. The result: a necktie party driven by two leaders, Maliki and Bush, each desperate to persuade himself that they still hold sway over imploding Iraq.
Six American soldiers and at least seventy-five Iraqi civilians died in roadside bombings on December 30. It was, in other words, a routine morning in US-occupied Baghdad. The fact that Saddam Hussein dropped from the gallows at dawn changed nothing.