It is an odd convergence that has haunted the past few weeks–that trio of deaths, President Gerald Ford, James Brown and Saddam Hussein–suspended between Christmas and New Year’s, an eerily bright full moon overhead. There was something trancelike about the weeklong circling of caissons, the sequence of funerals: three very subdued proceedings for Ford, three over-the-top ones for Brown and no visible ceremony at all for Saddam, just the loud mocking of hooded executioners as he was flung to swing hanging in the darkness of a deep pit.
I’m bothered by that feeling of trance; there is something rather numb inside me at the moment, something that does not know how to reconcile all the degrees of separation among these three lives, these three deaths. The rituals of respect or disrespect accorded to each of these symbolic figurations–the decent and forgiving man, the proud and loud man, the bad man–represent a spectrum of who we are as Americans. The most complicated of these is clearly the death of Saddam Hussein, which, while not officially ordered by our government, is nonetheless the terrible denouement of one fantastically wrongheaded decision after another on the part of the Bush Administration. The death of Saddam, with its timing on a Sunni holy day and its casual volley of catcalled humiliation, seemed almost calculated to turn a tyrant into a martyr.
Let me state what ought to be obvious: I am not defending Saddam Hussein’s murderous past. When serial killer Ted Bundy was executed years ago, most Americans experienced a jolt of revulsion upon seeing small crowds gathered outside the prison to picnic and hold up signs rejoicing in his death. Sixteen years later, when pictures of Saddam’s corpse were replayed endlessly on Fox to the accompaniment of the unbridled exultation of its shock jocks, how sad to see a majority of Americans passively insuring Fox’s high ratings by watching this ghoulish spectacle. Is there not an ugly resonance with the postcards of public lynchings that used to be circulated during the time of Jim Crow?
While in these doldrums, I received holiday greetings from an old friend and law school classmate, Cynthia Cannady, who expressed perfectly the apprehension I was having trouble putting into words. Her letter helped me pinpoint the way sensationalism actually dulls our capacity to feel at all.
“I have to express my views on the recent events in Iraq,” she wrote. “In recent months, even Newsweek used the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ to describe the killings of Sunnis by death squads linked to the Iraqi government, especially the Interior Ministry. The number of Iraqis killed since the beginning of this invasion is upward of 650,000. Every day there are new reports of civilians kidnapped and killed, by men often using official cars and in government uniforms. News reports tell us that there is a conscious policy of killing Sunnis because of their organized resistance to the Maliki government, with professors and professionals the frequent targets. Ethnic cleansing! Who installed this government?