By lex, Posted on December 30, 2006
The first thing to note about the death of Saddam Hussein by hanging is how little it had to do with us. He ruled over Iraq by fear, was deposed by force, and was tried in an Iraqi courtroom for crimes committed before we ever gave Iraq much thought. Iraqi witnesses bore testimony to the lives of Iraqis he had gratuitously extinguised, and he died at the hands of an Iraqi executioner in accordance with Iraqi law. Our part was only to be that of the arresting officer – and that role aided and abetted by Iraqi tipsters – everything else was his and theirs in the weirdly conjoined way that victims become a part of their victimizer’s tale, and vice-versa. Cultured solons in fashionable salons might agree or disagree on the topic of whether a man was ever more justly hung, but in the final analysis it simply isn’t for us to say.
Saddam’s talent was to fashion a state apparatus designed to bureaucratize the imposition of hideous violence upon those that dared to disagree with him, while keeping the simple masses satisfied with modern day bread and circuses: Food subsidies and foreign distractions. But there is nothing particulaly new in this – all enduring tyrannies rely upon providing their people just enough to keep them dependent upon the state and the application of dehumanized levers of state power to terrify or eliminate internal opposition. Those they cannot conveniently cower, or whom they wish to subborn to their cause – and staying atop the tiger is the only cause, dictators have but miserly retirement options – they unify by using the state-controlled media to stoke the hatred of an external enemy. For this purpose any foe will do: The Persians, the Kuwaitis, the Americans, the Jews. The Jews are always good.
But all of that was mere formula, learnt by rote. Saddam’s real claim to enter the pantheon of infamy was his personal willingness to do whatever it took in order to remain atop the mountain of skulls he had built, the way he cemented a vice-like grip over an often restive and divided populace by repeatedly demonstrating that his capacity for inhumanity and brutality exceeded that of anyone who would oppose him by several orders of magnitude. That takes a kind of mad genius, a genius that is not readily apparent in the sad and frightened face of an old, rumpled man passively accepting the rough hands passing the noose around his neck.
Saddam was tried by a process that – however flawed it might have been – was more nearly perfect and far more humane than any he allowed the people he ruled over with such contempt for so long. His death may or may not have been justice, but it was certainly a kind of propitiation for his sins – 875,000 dead in the 8-year Iran/Iraq war, 180,000 dead in the anti-Kurdish Anfal campaign, the rape of Kuwait, the persecution of the Shia and marsh Arabs and the 300,000 ordinary Iraqis simply gone missing over the course of his three decades of absolute tyranny. If few men have shown themselves capable of the violence necessary to subject 25 million people to their own capriciousness, fewer still will have so little to show for it – a country of great natural and human resources degraded, impoverished, brutalized and in the current analysis, morally bankrupted by inter-sectarian violence. Not to mention his sons dead, his wife and daughters fled and himself swinging at the end of a rope.
His death will probably not put any kind of end to the on-going slaughter spurred by his disenfranchised confederates – indeed, it may at first accelerate it – but for both his victims and his enablers it will confirm there is no going back: No going back to the state-sponsored terror, the rape rooms, the children’s prisons, the plastic shredders, the mass graves, the threatening of neighbor states and the use of weapons of mass destruction against them, against his own. Farewell to all of that.
There is no need for us to take any kind of pleasure in this death, nor to feel compelled to issue any predictions about what the future might bring, but we should at least allow ourselves a certain degree of satisfaction that the closing of this particularly brutal chapter in the annals of human governance represents a step forward along the pathway of human progress.
While remembering that it really wasn’t about us.