Talisman Gate

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Aftermath of a Hanging

January 9, 2007 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Aftermath of a Hanging


January 9, 2007
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/46294

The tyrant was taunted and bullied. The condemned man heard some harsh words before he dangled. Woe to mankind.

Most commentators should have described the hurried hanging of Saddam Hussein and the sectarian chants emanating from the excited bodyguards that accompanied the execution as a regrettable set of circumstances and then moved on. But no, most chose to dwell on it and turn it into a tirade against the whole legitimacy of removing Saddam from power.

Their indignation was fake because it was disproportionate, and it exposed much of the underlying agendas that drive the discourse on Iraq.

If you wanted Saddam executed, then all you took from the spectacle was the end result: Saddam is no more. If you didn't want Saddam executed, were conceptually against the death penalty, or were still embittered over the Florida recount, then you nitpicked every detail and decried what happened.

Saddam's mortal remains were respected and returned to his clan, who promptly turned his grave into a shrine — something the Iraqi government had wanted to prevent but which some self-righteous American bureaucrat on the ground in Iraq favored.

Back in Saddam's era, should you be a lucky family to get the corpse of a loved one back after an execution, you would have received a bill from the regime for the price of the bullets used. But most were not so lucky: Some had to wait years, others decades, until the fall of the regime to find out what had happened to their relatives. Many never were able to locate a grave. Bodies were buried in numbered lots, but sheer numbers overwhelmed the system, and files and tags were often misplaced.

Documents found after Saddam was overthrown reveal that in some cases, the regime retroactively adjusted dates of death to give the impression that an individual had lived for years in prison when he actually had died much earlier after being tortured.

But that is if one was killed through the system. The bodies of hundreds of thousands of Kurds killed in the campaigns against them in the 1980s and of Shiites killed during their 1991 uprising were bulldozed into pits. Many were villagers and peasants who did not get numbers and files but whose remains had to be identified by dress, a ring, or an identity card that had not yet decomposed.

An image of Saddam as a tin pot dictator has persisted in Western minds. That is what allowed the Washington Post cartoonist, Tom Toles, to pen a cartoon on November 29, 2005, titled "The Saddam Trial Resumes," showing a lawyer for the prosecution leaning toward Saddam and saying, "Tell us about your death squads and secret police and torture and executions. … We need some tips on getting this country under control." Saddam was being tried for the crime against the people of Dujail, for which he was hanged. Yet Mr. Toles, who probably didn't watch a single full session of that trial, trivialized the horrors. I doubt if six decades after World War II, Mr. Toles would approach Adolf Hitler's record with such flippancy.

Underlying the reluctance to equate Saddam with the other totalitarian nightmares of the 20th century such as Stalin's Russia, Nazi Germany, or Franco's Spain, is the notion that such magnitude of oppression requires sophistication and talent, and that Iraq had neither.

That is a racist view. While in Europe Jews were being persecuted, in Baghdad a school for blind Jewish girls was established in 1931. Iraq had promise, talent, and wealth, which Saddam subsumed to erect a "Republic of Fear," as the Iraqi intellectual Kanan Makiya demonstrates in a book of the same title.

Mr. Makiya shows how the nascent Baath regime that assumed power in a coup numbed down society's tolerance for violence. To do that, the regime invented a Zionist conspiracy and started hanging a mostly Jewish batch of alleged spies in 1969, convicted in show trials. But with every fresh batch, the Jewish ratio dwindled, and more Muslim and Christian targets were strung up. Hundreds of thousands were herded to Baghdad's main square to witness the spectacle: Children were taken out of schools, and adults were bused in. They cheered, threw filth, and even — gasp — taunted.

And yet, the commentators were taken aback by Saddam's "composed" and "dignified" manner at the gallows. Saddam wouldn't have broken down, for he believed himself to be one of the great men of history, bending reality to his will. Those whose lives were overturned throughout his rule knew this about him. But most of those who comment about Saddam in America have chosen to remain blissfully ignorant, or cynically disdainful.

Similarly, the Arab media deplored the execution for falling on the first day of the Sunni Muslim religious holiday of 'Eid, with vehement denunciations coming from the Saudis and the press outlets they own. They forgot that the chief Wahhabi cleric of Saudi Arabia had declared Saddam an infidel during the first Gulf war.

Those regrettable circumstances — the timing and the taunting — also gave a chance for a few of the early backers of the war to redeem themselves by expressing angst over the manner of the hanging. They had become pariahs at East Coast cocktail parties, where moral fuzziness goes for trendy — just ask Mr. Toles. Now, their rhetorical self-flagellation can gain them entry back into the intellectual elite, which has used the Iraq war for partisan sniping and for expressing rage over issues that have nothing to do with Iraq.

Saddam met his just end. The trial was more than fair if judged fairly. Everything took place according to Iraqi law. All else is chaff. Those who begrudge the victims their moment of solace should have the decency to see the larger picture, instead of dwelling on what in the end is merely theater.

Mr. Kazimi can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com

January 9, 2007 Edition > Section: Opinion >