The disgusting video of Saddam Hussein’s last moments on the planet is more than a reminder of the inescapable barbarity of capital punishment and of the intelligible and conventional reasons why it should always be opposed. The zoolike scenes in that dank, filthy shed (it seems that those attending were not even asked to turn off their cell phones or forbidden to use them to record souvenir film) were more like a lynching than an execution. At one point, one of the attending magistrates can be heard appealing for decency and calm, but otherwise the fact must be faced: In spite of his mad invective against “the Persians” and other traitors, the only character with a rag of dignity in the whole scene is the father of all hangmen, Saddam Hussein himself.
How could it have come to this? Did U.S. officials know that the designated “executioners” would be the unwashed goons of Muqtada Sadr’s “Mahdi Army”—the same sort of thugs who killed Abdul Majid al-Khoei in Najaf just after the liberation and who indulge in extra-judicial murder of Iraqis every night and day? Did our envoys and representatives ask for any sort of assurances before turning over a prisoner who was being held under the Geneva Conventions? According to the New York Times, there do seem to have been a few insipid misgivings about the timing and the haste, but these appear to have been dissolved soon enough and replaced by a fatalistic passivity that amounts, in theory and practice, to acquiescence in a crude Shiite coup d’état. Thus, far from bringing anything like “closure,” the hanging ensures that the poison of Saddamism will stay in the Iraqi bloodstream, mingling with other related infections such as confessional fanaticism and the sort of video sadism that has until now been the prerogative of al-Qaida’s dehumanized ghouls. We have helped to officiate at a human sacrifice. For shame.
In Baghdad last week, I missed the best chance I shall ever have to mention rope in the house of a hanged man. The house belonged to Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, Saddam’s repellent half-brother and one of the two men who are now scheduled to follow him through the trapdoor. These days, it serves as the office of President Jalal Talabani, with whom I was invited to take lunch. The television was showing the trial of Saddam and his associates for the Anfal campaign, that ruthless and mechanized devastation of Iraqi Kurdistan and the systematic slaughter and clearance of its people by conventional and chemical weaponry. Every Kurd I know was eager to see this episode properly aired in court and placed on the record for all time, with its chief perpetrator on hand to be confronted with his deeds. Instead, the said chief perpetrator was snatched from the dock—in the very middle of his trial—and thrown as a morsel to one of the militias. This sort of improvised “offing” is not even a parody of the serious tribunal that history demands.
I couldn’t help but notice that President Talabani was unwilling to be drawn on the subject of the death penalty, to which he is opposed. He might have been forgiven a bit of gloating after all that his people had endured, but he denied himself the pleasure. I also couldn’t help noticing that when the Iraqi “appeals court” confirmed the death sentence (after a period of time so short that it would be insulting to describe it as a judicial review), it stipulated that not even the president could commute the sentence. In other words, the need of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to ingratiate himself with Muqtada Sadr’s forces has been allowed to take precedence over everything else, including the stern requirements of justice that were the supposed point of the trial to begin with. The timing—isn’t anyone in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad paid to notice this kind of thing?—was explicitly designed to rub every kind of humiliation into Iraqi Sunnis. It profaned their observance of the Eidul-Adha holiday, while gratifying the Shiite fundamentalists whose ceremonies begin one day later. To have made the butcher Saddam into a martyr, to have gratified one sect, and to have cheated millions of Iraqis and Kurds of the chance for a full accounting—what a fine day’s work!
I think that there is a reason the Kurdish reaction is somewhat different from the Shiite one. Iraqi Kurdistan escaped from Saddam’s rule in 1992, and its citizens have since been engaged in patiently building up their autonomy. They did not have to endure the appalling humiliation of sanctions plus Saddam, and they have not since been so much engaged in a foul civil war begun by Sunni extremists desecrating shrines and slaughtering civilians. Their attitude to their former despot and murderer is somewhat more detached and judicious. If they feel a thirst for vengeance, they do not make a tribal fiesta of it. The moral difference here is not negligible.
Reporting from defeated Germany in 1945, and noticing some brutal treatment of captured SS men, George Orwell wrote a brilliant essay called “Revenge Is Sour.” I hadn’t thought of it for a while but pulled it down from the shelf when I returned from Iraq. Here is the key passage:
Properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also.Who would not have jumped for joy, in 1940, at the thought of seeing S.S. officers kicked and humiliated? But when the thing becomes possible, it is merely pathetic and disgusting. It is said that when Mussolini’s corpse was exhibited in public, an old woman drew a revolver and fired five shots into it, exclaiming, “Those are for my five sons!” It is the kind of story that the newspapers make up, but it might be true. I wonder how much satisfaction she got out of those five shots, which, doubtless, she had dreamed years earlier of firing. The condition of her being able to get near enough to Mussolini to shoot at him was that he should be a corpse.
The shabby, tawdry scene of Muqtada Sadr’s riffraff taunting their defenseless former tyrant evokes exactly this quality of hysterical falsity and bravado. While Saddam Hussein was alive, they cringed. Now, they find their lost courage, and meanwhile take the drill and the razor blade and the blowtorch to their fellow Iraqis. To watch this abysmal spectacle as a neutral would be bad enough. To know that the U. S. government had even a silent, shamefaced part in it is to feel something well beyond embarrassment.