Death Does Not Bring Closure…
Two weeks ago, as the manner of Saddam Hussein’s execution became public knowledge through the release of the cell-phone snuff movie, I made the mistake of visiting the BBC’s web forum on the topic. 20,000 opinions were registered before the BBC closed up the thread, and most of them made for depressing reading. They included Muslims from around the world who hailed Saddam as a martyr, thousands who accused Bush and Blair directly and implicitly of arranging Saddam’s murder, on to the apparent Iranian who demanded proof that Saddam had ever committed a crime (an Iranian?), through the many who still insisted this was all about oil, and onto the Americans who themselves fell into two predictable camps – those who renounced their leadership to the point that they almost assumed personal responsibility and guilt for the hanging of the dictator, and those who defended said American leadership along with American use of force in the wake of 9/11, thereby associating Saddam Hussein with the attacks of that day. Maybe one in a hundred posts was written with compassion, intelligence and a decent understanding of world affairs. I signed off more dispirited about the state of global opinion than ever.
Now, with the hanging – and near enough the quartering – of Saddam’s co-defendants, I’m going to take the unusual step of reprinting an editorial in its entirety, the only one I have read on the subject with which I whole-heartedly agree. It’s by Hendrik Hertzberg and it was the opening column in last week’s New Yorker. (I only got to read it over the weekend; a new issue is already on the newsstands.) The New Yorker hardly lacks for readership and influence, but it’s often accused of preaching to the converted, and so I think this piece deserves an even wider audience, including the many iJamming! readers abroad who will rarely look inside the magazine, online or in print. My thanks to Mr. Hertzberg for not only understanding the bigger picture, but proving able to articulate it.
The hanging of Saddam Hussein was meant to be, by the depraved standards of the Iraq war, something of a feel-good moment. President Bush saw it that way, or claimed to. A statement issued in his name stressed that Saddam’s execution had been made possible by “the Iraqi people’s determination to create a society governed by the rule of law.” The deposed dictator’s dangling, the President said, “is an important milestone on Iraq’s course to becoming a democracy. . . . We are reminded today of how far the Iraqi people have come since the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule.”
Compared to many of the other horrors that have served as milestones along the four-year journey from shock and awe through stay the course to surge and pray, what happened at 6:10 A.M. on December 30th in that dank, foul-smelling execution chamber was relatively free of bloodshed. Only one person was killed, and he was anything but an innocent civilian. Yet in many quarters—here, in Iraq, and around the world—there has been a conspicuous failure to feel good.
It did not take long for the hanging to become a metaphor for the over-all disaster of which it is part. Although the deed was done in a rush, under conditions of dubious legality, and with little regard for its aftermath, initial reports suggested that it had at least been done with appropriate solemnity, and that the condemned man had gone to his death meekly, as if acknowledging, even repenting, his crimes. According to the first dispatch posted online by the Times, “Those in the room said that Mr. Hussein was dressed entirely in black and carrying a Koran and that he was compliant as the noose was draped around his neck.” One witness was quoted as saying, “He just gave up. We were astonished. It was strange. He just gave up.”
Mission accomplished, you might say. But as the details trickled out—first via officially provided videotape, silent and redacted; then via cell-phone-camera samizdat, jerky and noisy; finally via fuller eyewitness accounts—a truer picture emerged. The hangmen’s black ski masks, the jeers, the jostling in the dark, the shouts of “God damn you,” the chanted prayer cut short by the sudden chunk-chunk of the trapdoor and the violent interruption of the prisoner’s free fall, the display of the glassy-eyed corpse—the brutal spectacle bore an irresistible resemblance to a video from some terrorist Web site. The sectarian subtext compounded the catastrophe. “Moktada! Moktada! Moktada!” guards chanted—Moktada being Moktada al-Sadr, the militant cleric whose Shiite militia is responsible for the wholesale murder and torture of Sunnis and whose support is vital to the political survival of Iraq’s nominal government. Saddam’s tormentors gave him an unexpected, undeserved gift. Their taunts chased away his fear and awakened his contempt. “Moktada?” he shot back. “Is this how real men behave?” A few seconds later, the trap sprang. The ex-tyrant died with a curse on his lips and a sneer on his face, a plausible candidate for warrior-martyr mythmaking.
Within the limits of its reach, Saddam’s regime was as murderous and fearsome as all but a handful of the modern era’s many dictatorships: not quite on the level of Hitler’s or Stalin’s, but far, far worse than the likes of Pinochet’s or Ceausescu’s. No trial was required to prove Saddam’s guilt; no punishment could be commensurate to his offenses. The aims of any proceedings against him were not forensic or punitive but educational and, in the highest sense, political. The best venue would have been an international court, like the one that prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic; but the Bush Administration’s disdain for such institutions was nearly a match for Saddam’s own. A trial or trials under Iraqi auspices had, or should have had, several purposes: to bolster the legitimacy of the fledgling government; to demonstrate the impartiality of its justice system; to promote national reconciliation; to act as an inquest into the full scope and range of the dictatorship’s crimes, and to draw a line under its methods; to deny impunity to the dictator himself. Only the last of these purposes was served. The others have actually been damaged, especially reconciliation. Saddam, a Sunni, had been convicted only of the deaths of a hundred and forty-eight Shiite men and boys. His trial in the genocidal killings of a hundred thousand Kurds was still in progress. His execution—which snuffed out any light he might, over time, have cast on the dark history of his rule—was timed, as if in deliberate insult, for the first day of the Sunni celebration of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha; the Shiites’ Eid al-Adha began a day later. And the severity and the ugliness of that execution, as well as its tincture of sectarian hatred, betrayed a sad continuity with the ways of the regime whose leader went to the gallows.
The hanging raises the same question as the war: was the problem the thing itself, or merely that the thing was botched? By Thursday, even Bush was showing signs of recognition that Saddam’s execution had not been a wholly positive development. “I wish, obviously, that the proceedings had been done in a more dignified way,” he told reporters. But it is legitimate to doubt—in fact, it is grotesque to suggest—that hanging (or beheading, stoning, shooting, electrocution, or lethal injection, the other methods currently in use in the countries, most of them unfree, that still practice capital punishment) can possibly be done in a “dignified way.”
On page 1 of last Wednesday’s Times, the lead story, in the right-hand column, concerned the Iraqi government’s ordering an investigation into “the abusive behavior at the execution of Saddam Hussein.” Across the page, the second lead was headlined PANEL SEEKS END TO DEATH PENALTY FOR NEW JERSEY. It reported a legislative commission’s findings that there is no good evidence that capital punishment serves any legitimate purpose and much evidence that it “is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency.”
The death penalty remains lawful in thirty-eight states. Though its application has been suspended in ten of them, including, last month, Florida and California, none have abolished it in the thirty years since the Supreme Court reinstated it. Slightly more than three thousand people are locked in the death rows of the United States—a pungent number, given the tolls of 9/11 and of American forces in Iraq. And the fate of those who die strapped to our gurneys and electric chairs is crueller than Saddam Hussein’s. He was hanged fifty-five days after he was sentenced, and the elapsed time between his transfer to Iraqi custody and his execution was forty minutes. In our country, the pattern is to be condemned in youth and executed in middle age. A person is sentenced, in effect, to an indefinite period of imprisonment—an average of between ten and twelve years, but often much longer—in conditions of constant anxiety and isolation, after which, at a year and date and time unknown, he is taken from his cell and burned or poisoned to death. California’s first judicial killing of 2006 disposed of a man who had been on death row for twenty-three years. Seventy-six years old, legally blind from diabetes, suffering from heart disease, he made the journey to the death chamber in a wheelchair. It is an irony, and not a nice one, that this uniquely American brand of sadism is a result of the obstacles that our justice system rightly demands be overcome before an execution can take place.
Some have charged that those who objected to Saddam’s hanging thereby minimized his crimes. But if Saddam’s guilt were to be the measure of his punishment he would have to have been tortured to death—and even then the retribution would have been inadequate. Capital punishment’s worst affront is not to the dignity and humanity of the condemned. It is to the dignity and humanity of the policy that decrees it.