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.