Fighting Words


Justice vs. reconciliation in post-Saddam Iraq.

In Portugal, after the revolution of 1974, there was a famous joke. It concerned the population explosion. Before the upheaval that destroyed the dictatorship, the country had contained 12 million loyal fascists. Now it had to find extra room for 12 million dedicated anti-fascists. This gag has its sour side. One of the things that made the de-Nazification of postwar Germany so difficult was the apparently extreme scarcity of people who had ever been members of, or even voters for, the Nazi Party in the first place. On every visit I have ever made to France, I have been forced to update the estimate of how many Jews lived there before Vichy—since every peasant sheltered at least 20 Jews in his hayloft, and every academic at least 10 under his floorboards, and every restaurant and bistro was fully equipped for the secret care and feeding of scores more.

The word used by the genuine anti-fascists after the Portuguese revolution was saneamento, which means “clean out.” Later in the same wonderful year, the collapse of NATO’s other fascist government in Greece had me witnessing crowds chanting “Catharsis,” which, as students of Aristotle know, literally means “purging.” Lately, however, any rhetoric that involves “cleansing,” let alone “purging,” has become rightly suspect. And in the next annus mirabilis of liberation, the year 1989, a new term became current. It evolved out of Vaclav Havel’s Czechoslovakia. “Lustration” was the word. It suggested the shining of a bright light, to see who did what to whom and who was who. The various “Truth and Justice” or “Truth and Reconciliation” commissions, from South Africa to Argentina to Guatemala, have taken the same tone in different ways.

But what if there is a difference between Justice and Reconciliation? Perhaps you have seen the notorious video of Saddam Hussein’s first “purge” of the Baath Party. The members of the central committee are abruptly confronted by a broken and tortured man, who stutters through a zombie confession that implicates about half of those present. As each name is announced, guards appear and drag off the begging, shrieking victim. Those whose names haven’t yet been called begin to yell hysterical professions of loyalty to the Leader. The Leader smokes a calm cigar. Scene 2 of this horror show was even more impressive. Those who had been spared were ordered to form a firing squad for those who had been “named.”

Thus an ingenious element of the mafia style was added to the usual methods of dictatorship. Everyone was “dirtied up” and made complicit. And this practice, involving a nexus of informers and opportunists, was followed down to the level of schoolteacher, librarian, and factory worker. Therefore, the search for a “clean” person in today’s Iraq will be like that of Diogenes, holding a lamp at midday in the market and looking for one honest and uncorrupted man.

Faced with such realities, as were the peoples of post-horror Germany and Russia, the tendency is to be forgiving for the sake of sheer realism. Who knows where the central water supply is located and how to turn it on? Who can provide a working guide to the courses and enrollments at the university? Who has a list of the wanted rapists and murderers in the city? Find this guy, and give him a pass. If everyone is guilty, then perhaps no one really is (except the really, really bad ones, and we’ll get to them later).

But where does this leave those who never buckled or betrayed? Doesn’t it mock those who resisted at the risk of their lives? And where does it leave those who never did anything but have at last found their courage? In the past, sudden changes of regime have tended to marginalize the first group (who are disliked for their moral rectitude and the implicit reproach they embody) while giving the second group an opportunity for vendetta.

This dilemma will persist in Iraq even longer, I predict, than it has in South Africa and El Salvador and Eastern Europe. The sheer extent of anguish and crime, so much of it for so long, will see to that. A tiny step in the right direction has been taken with the publishing of a list of unforgivables: This probably helped many waverers to decide between their enforced allegiance and their potentially true one. And certain offenses, such as torture and genocide, cannot be amnestied or subject to any statute of limitations (which is why it was wrong of Powell and Rumsfeld to flirt with the idea of granting pardons that were not within their legal or moral power before the war even began).

To return by this route to a pet subject of mine: This argument ought to remove some of the sneer potential from the word “exile.” I notice that Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress are still being described, by Sy Hersh in The New Yorker most recently, as “an exile group.” This disregards the fact that many of them were fighting in northern Iraq 10 years ago, and it simultaneously overlooks one of the best things about them, namely that they are not implicated or befouled by any past atrocities. Since I last complained about this and the lazy use of the wrong term by the New York Times, I have observed that INC forces have received grudging, down-page credit for retrieving stolen artifacts from the Baghdad Museum, for unearthing fascinating documents from the files of Saddam’s secret police, for arranging the surrender of several key Baathists to the coalition, and for intervening on the right side to try and ensure that a notorious placeman does not retain his post at the head of Baghdad University. More power to their elbows. (Incidentally, if they are now in Baghdad, these forces are by definition no longer “exiles.”) Yet every journalist feels compelled to state, as a matter of record, that Ahmad Chalabi was once convicted (by a very bizarre special court in the kingdom of Jordan) of embezzling money from a bank that was partly controlled by Iraq. I am not an accountant, and I admit that I don’t know what happened at the Bank of Petra in 1972. I am not sure, after exhaustive inquiries, that I know anybody who really does know. But I do know what happened at the Iraqi Central Bank a few weeks ago, and I don’t have to be an accountant or auditor to understand it. As with everything else, it is the sheer ruthless criminality of the ancien régime that staggers the mind and makes some people flinch and change the subject.