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.