Saddam’s execution and the tragedy of Iraq

A couple of weeks ago the U.S. Institute of Peace organized this panel discussion, at which I got to present the main points in my latest book, which is about “transitional justice” issues in three African countries. (It was an excellent discussion. You can download an audio feed of it there.)
Most of the argument I made was a plea that the international community leave room for amnesties and other approaches to social healing as part of negotiations that successfully bring an end to atrocity-laden conflicts.
Toward the end of the session, Neil Kritz, a longtime USIP staffer who’s a lawyer and a big groundbreaker in the transitional justice field, threw me a friendly challenge, “Well, what about Saddam? He is so evidently a monster. What would you do about him?”
I didn’t really have time to answer Neil properly. Saddam is a “hard case” for an anti-death penalty person like me to think about. (Okay, I am also, in general, a fairly strongly critic of the entire theory of “punishment” as it has been conceived in western thought, and practised in western societies. I am much more in favor of restorative approaches to social healing as a way to increase justice, rather than retributive theories of enacting a formalized, highly legalistic form of “justice” against– as happens disproportionately– members of social groups that anyway start off as socially and politically marginalized.)
So what about Saddam?
I disagree with Neil, first, that the man is a “monster”. He is responsible for having carried out many monstrous acts, certainly. But that is significantly different. His having committed those acts doesn’t remove him from the class of human beings and put him in some sub-human category, like “monsters”, that can be dealt with in unhuman ways.
In northern Uganda, Joseph Kony has also– by all accounts– committed many acts of, if possible, even greater “monstrosity” than Saddam’s acts. Kony and his followers are credibly accused of having engaged not “just” in broad-scale murder, mutilation, and enslavement but also in sexual enslavement of thousands of girls, the impressment of thousands of child soldiers, and even cannibalism.
And yet, the vast majority of the Acholi people who have been the main targets of these acts have continued to urge that great efforts be made to reintegrate Kony into Acholi society.
Now, I know that the Acholi people have a very different culture from the Iraqi people; and I understand that in Iraq there are broad swathes of — in particular– Shiites and Kurds who have expressed great eagerness for Saddam to be executed. But I mentioned Kony and the attitudes of the Acholi towards him to show that there– and in many other places around the world, indeed– there is no automatic assumption, such as most westerners seem to hold to, that the victims/survivors of acts of monstrosity “always” want to see strong retribution/punishment enacted against their former persecutors, and that to “honor” these victims we who are outsiders to the issue should always support those calls for retribution.
Actually, I feel rather strongly that to do that merely infantilizes the victims.
There are many other cultures around the world, indeed– and also, I am sure, some smaller groups within Iraq’s Kurdish and Shiite communities– where survivors of acts of atrocity are not completely pandered to in this way, but are urged to play their own responsible part in helping build a future society of inter-group cooperation and tolerance, and the strengthening of the rule of law.
“An eye for an eye, and the whole world goes blind.” That’s what Mahatma Gandhi said– and quite rightly so.
Regarding Saddam as such, I feel myself as a US citizen to be both an “outsider” regarding consideration of his case, and also– by virtue of my citizenship in a nation that has played such a huge role in bringing him to his present death sentence– indirectly a party to it.
I protest, loathe, and seek in every way to dissociate myself from the role my government has played in orchestrating this deeply flawed “trial” for Saddam Hussein.
As I wrote here, earlier today, there was at least one other, better path the US authorities in Iraq could have taken with respect to Saddam, once he had been captured alive. Instead of which, his case turned into into a highly divisive public spectacle within an Iraq that cried out for social healing, rather than for the further exacerbation of grave inter-group tensions.
I can understand– I think– why people from a number of social groups inside Iraq, and from Iran and Kuwait, may welcome the news of his execution, which will probably come very soon now. He did take some terribly aggressive decisions which rained death, destruction, and the lengthy privations of war down on millions of Iranians and Iraqis (and on the few thousands of courageous Kuwaitis who did not flee their princedom when his forces first invaded it in 1990.)
The worst acts Saddam committed were to gratuitously launch those two invasions of his neighbors– Iran in 1980, and Kuwait a decade later. For those wars not only led directly to death and destruction on the front-lines; beyond that, each of them also created a broader climate of fear and intense mistrust within which the Iraqi “security” forces committed horrendous atrocities against the country’s own people… Against Kurds and some Shiites in the 1980s. And then in 1991, horrendously, once again against large numbers of people from both those groups.
But honestly, without Iraq being in a climate of war at those times, I am sure that Saddam and the toadies from his mukhabarat would not have felt such a strong impetus to commit those atrocities. The root monstrosity was the monstrosity of starting those wars.
And then, there is President Bush, and his decision to gratuitously launch a war against Iraq in 2003; and all the later monstrosities that have occurred within an Iraq traumatized by that conflict and the lengthy and often grossly oppressive occupation that followed. Do we call Bush a “monster” because of the responsibility he must bear for a large proportion of this suffering? I don’t. Even though several things that have happened on his watch– in Abu Ghraib, in Guantanamo, and elsewhere round the world– have truly been acts of great monstrosity, for which he has never even started to make amends.
Saddam Hussein was a useful ally for the United States back in the 1980s. Let’s not forget that. And that alliance was sustained even though D. Rumsfeld and the other relevant people in the Reagan administration already knew full well that he was a man of great brutality.
I am sorry he is going to be killed. I am sorry whenever any of God’s children are intentionally killed by other humans. Any such killing– whether it’s carried out under the cover of a “judicial” process or not– makes the world a coarser and more brutal place.
In addition, it perpetuates the myth that if we can just kill enough of our enemies, then all our problems will be solved. No. Killing people whose acts we hate will never solve our problems. Finding ways to prevent them from carrying out such acts is the only thing that will; and there are many, many ways of achieving that. Very lengthy prison sentences is one way. Persuading these people to stop stop committing such acts and joining with us in building a better social order is even better…
Tonight I think I’m going to say a prayer for broad inter-group social healing among Iraqis. The last thing they need is yet more exacerbation of their inter-group tensions, such as this vindictive decision to execute Saddam Hussein threatens to bring. Let’s hope that enough Iraqis are cognizant enough of the risks of further social breakdown that they can find ways to avoid it.

20 thoughts on “Saddam’s execution and the tragedy of Iraq

  1. Andrew Schamess

    This is a very compassionate and thought-provoking essay. Thank you for offering a rare alternative perspective to the spectacle the media are making of this event.

  2. Dominic

    Hanging a person has more to do with the living than the dead hanged person. Saddam should not be hanged. If killers are monsters, then deliberately killing in the name of the society makes society monstrous. It’s not worth it.
    Yes, and the thing about living with the past is that you must live with all of it and continue to do so. You may not “draw the line”, accept some, and reject other parts. Killing a “monster” is a pretence of false “closure”.
    Above all, the cycle must be broken. Hanging Saddam is not breaking the cycle, it is continuing the same cycle.

  3. Shirin

    Well, it is all over the news that Saddam has been executed. They are “interrupting their regular programming” for “extended coverage” of this major anti-climactic near non-event.
    I am categorically opposed to the death penalty, largely on the basis that the right to remain alive is the number one most fundamental of all the human rights, and human rights are one of the few absolutes in this world. They must be applied universally. If human rights can be denied to one person, even the worst of the worst, then they can be denied to anyone, including the most innocent. I am also not a fan of punishment, largely because it doesn’t really work. In fact, more often than not it will eventually have the opposite of the desired result.
    So, what do we do with criminals? Well, if they are a danger to society, then we separate them from society until we can be reasonably certain they are no longer a danger. If that takes their entire lifetime, then so be it. However, redemption is the most desirable goal, and if it is possible to achieve this, that is the ideal. (Stanley Tookie Williams comes to mind as a case of redemption.)
    Having said that, in the case of Saddam, the greatest punishment would have been not death, but being separated from society for life, and provided only his basic needs. That would have effectively protected society, and would have been a terrible punishment as well for this classic narcissistic personality.
    Now that he is dead, his suffering is over. Unfortunately, his death changes nothing for the Iraqi people. Their suffering will continue.

  4. Shirin

    David, it WAS an American decision. It was Americans who ran the trial, even to the point of appointing and instructing judges, and firing them when they did not perform as directed. The execution took place on American territory – the Green Zone, under the control of Americans. One report I have seen reveals that the Americans did not release him to Iraqis until the moment before the execution took place.

  5. David

    Shirin,
    I agree. As I said in a comment today in response to Helena’s Riverbend post, the only people who were in a rush to silence him were the ones whose secrets he could spill : the West and his very good “friends” in the GCC. Oh he could haev said so much; alas.

  6. Mike

    I ask this again and again but I always seem to be the only one: when do we see the people in the US who funded and armed Saddam put on trial? When do we see the people in the US like Rumsfeld who allowed Iraq to have the gas (and supplied him with the helicopters) to kill over 100,000 Iranians with his gas attacks? Just judging by numbers, that far outweighs the Dujail attacks and other atrocities committed by Saddam, but don’t expect people in the West (not to mention Sunni Arab regimes who supported him) to be put on trial any time soon. This is pure victor’s justice, where the predominantly Shiite government deciding to execute Saddam after a hasty and deeply flawed and politicized trial, and the US scoring rhetorical points.

  7. Shirin

    “…the predominantly Shiite government deciding to execute Saddam…”
    Mike, the Iraqi make-believe government cannot blow its nose without the Americans deciding for them the nature, the timing, and the brand and number of tissues it will use. You can be sure it was not the Iraqi make-believe government that decided to execute Saddam, or when or how to do it.

  8. Salah

    such as this vindictive decision to execute Saddam Hussein

    “Yep, that was worth a half trillion dollars, tens of thousands of wounded and maimed American soldiers, thousands of dead American soldiers and probably close to half a million dead innocent Iraqis, completely destroyed the infrastructure of Iraq, destroyed our cedibility around the world, created refugee camps of Iraqis WITHIN their own country,”

  9. Michael Murry

    I found the drawn-out farce of a Potemkin “trial” and subsequent hasty, furtive execution of Saddam Hussein by my government immensly depressing — sort of like watching a cat leisurely play with a dying mouse prior to killing it just before it could expire naturally of its wounds. Typical of the Texas Stud Hamster, though: petty, cruel, and mean.

  10. Dave of Maryland

    I am reminded of Mussolini’s squalid ending. Deserving? Maybe. But crappy.
    I hate the death penalty. I know what it does, I know the mess it leaves behind & how hard that can be to clean up.
    But I might make an exception for regicide, for those countries beset by series of leaders who harm not only their neighbors, but their fellow countrymen as well. Like a number of Roman emperors, for example. For a one-off leader, like Saddam, it’s clear that regicide will do a lot more harm than good.
    For months, ever since it became clear Saddam’s days were numbered, I’ve been haunted by the old German fable of Der Freischutz, the “freeshooter”, with his seven magic bullets, the last of which has the marksman’s own name on it, a tale rashness & unintended consequences.

  11. D. Mathews

    I am sorry whenever any of God’s children are intentionally killed by other humans. Any such killing– whether it’s carried out under the cover of a “judicial” process or not– makes the world a coarser and more brutal place.
    I tend to share your view as well the scorn that people heap upon those of us who think that way. “Where is the sympathy for the victims of the crime(s) the condemned has committed?”, they shriek.
    I sort of laugh at myself now in private because I remember the days when I used to ridicule my father for being a conscientious objector.

  12. David

    Bob Scheer believes, like myself, that Saddam was killed in order to be silenced, lest he spill the secrets he shares with his old friends and allies, the US, the European troika (UK-France-Germany) and his dear friends in the GCC:
    http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/20061229_saddam_hussein_executed/
    Robert Scheer: Silencing Saddam
    Truthdig.com, December 30, 2006
    By Robert Scheer
    It is a very frightening precedent that the United States can invade a country on false pretenses, depose its leader and summarily execute him without an international trial or appeals process. This is about vengeance, not justice, for if it were the latter the existing international norms would have been observed. The trial should have been overseen by the World Court, in a country that could have guaranteed the safety of defense lawyers, who, in this case, were killed or otherwise intimidated.
    The irony here is that the crimes for which Saddam Hussein was convicted occurred before the United States, in the form of Donald Rumsfeld, embraced him. Those crimes were well known to have occurred 15 months before Rumsfeld visited Iraq to usher in an alliance between the United States and Saddam to defeat Iran.
    The fact is that Saddam Hussein knew a great deal about the United States’ role in Iraq, including deals made with Bush’s father. This rush to execute him had the feel of a gangster silencing the key witness to a crime.
    At Nuremberg in the wake of World War II the U.S. set the bar very high by declaring that even the Nazis, who had committed the most heinous of crimes, should have a fair trial. The U.S. and allies insisted on this not to serve those charged, but to educate the public through a believable accounting. In the case of Saddam, the bar was lowered to the mud, with the proceedings turned into a political circus reminiscent of Stalin’s show trials.

  13. Salah

    Remember O People! The name of the animal is Empire. And you and I have a choice. Sell your soul and bow your head in submission to the King. Or raise your head and it will be cut off. It’s as simple as that. Freedom is as it will be defined for you. Justice is as will be given to you. Democracy is as is approved for you. I

    In these day where the Hajj and Muslims seek forgiveness from Allah and all the souls looks for his mercy and forgiveness from their mistakes, this is quite an appropriate to be dated on the first day of Eid.
    I don’t know are the Puppets in Iraq known Islam and its rules and how Muslims should behave in these days as any Muslims or they are just Poppets and they obeying their master who brought them to the house.
    Moreover those the Turban headed who call themself “Ayatollah” “Assayed form Al-Biet” and “Ruhollah” did they knew Allah that its part of their nick name or just given name to hid e themselves of their ugly souls and faces

  14. Salah

    “If everything had followed the coalition plan, if everything were calm now, this could have been the biggest event of the year, maybe the biggest event in the post-invasion,” said Henri J. Barkey, a former State Department official and Mideast specialist.
    “This is not just a sideshow. But everyday existence is so grave and grim, it’s not what it might have been.”

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