When Saddam Hussein was found hiding in a “spider-hole” near his hometown of Tikrit, the Bush administration heralded the development as yet one more signal of an American victory, despite the fact, as The Nation observed in its editorial, “Saddam’s Inglorious End,” that an insurrection was developing throughout the country, one which had very little to do with Hussein’s involvement.

“The enemies of a free Iraq have lost their leader,” said George Bush following the capture of Saddam Hussein. To many people’s eyes, the lone derelict crouching in a six-foot-deep “spider hole” hardly seemed the mastermind of the insurrection. Yes, his capture is good news for the Iraqi people. Their ex-dictator can now be held to account for the fearful crimes and atrocities that pocked his reign—hanging innocent Jews in Baghdad in 1969; ordering a third of Baath Party officials shot in 1979; invading Iran and decimating a generation of young men; gassing the Kurds in 1988; massacring Shiites and marsh Arabs after the first Gulf War; ceaseless arbitrary arrests and executions. That said, Bush’s incipient triumphalism seems an attempt to inflate the arrest of Saddam into a justification for his illegal war.…

At most, the former dictator was a rallying symbol for a restoration, but that prospect instilled dread in the hearts of most Iraqis who had come to loathe him. Many Iraqis, Sunnis as well as Shiites, may actually feel emboldened to resist US troops now that Saddam has no chance of coming back. As for the Islamists coming in from other countries, they were never fond of Saddam.…

We hope that the trial of Saddam Hussein will be fairly conducted and enable Iraqis to purse their dark past. For Americans the trial should provide some lessons: Neither the overthrow of the Baathist regime nor Saddam’s capture can erase the fact that Washington (and other Western powers) helped prop up Saddam for years. It will be said that such things matter little now that the dictator is in custody. Such a view suits our ethos, our indifference to history; it is also the privilege of the victor to wipe the slate clean and forget the past—but that is a luxury we can ill afford. The rise of Saddam Hussein is as much a part of US history as is his fall.

December 13, 2003