Sunday, December 31, 2006

Just Revenge

Written on the side of the Criminal Courts building on Tulane and Broad is the following quote:
This is a Government of Law not of Men
The statement is overtly sexist, but it is meant to describe the democratic government we have set up here in the U.S.A. (Some would say, then, that the overt sexism is accurate.) This is also supposed to be the democracy we are spreading to the Middle East.

But this morning, I read this NY Times account of Saddam Hussein’s execution with this chilling lead sentence:
BAGHDAD, Dec. 30 — Saddam Hussein never bowed his head, until his neck snapped.
It is clear that in the government sanctioned death of Saddam Hussein, men killed the ex-dictator, not law:
His executioners wore black ski masks, but Mr. Hussein could still see their deep brown skin and hear their dialects, distinct to the Shiite southern part of the country, where he had so brutally repressed two separate uprisings.
Hussein represented Sunni Iraq. The current government is dominated by Shiite Iraq. The sectarian violence in Iraq – the civil war – is, put simply, the Sunni militias versus the Shiite militias.

Hussein’s execution at the hands of a Shiite government, and more intimately by the hands of Shiite men, can be seen as a Shiite victory over the Sunnis in Iraq – hardly a way to bring the two sides together.

And the two sides were at war even at the scene of the execution:
The room was quiet as everyone began to pray, including Mr. Hussein. “Peace be upon Mohammed and his holy family.”

Two guards added, “Supporting his son Moktada, Moktada, Moktada.”

Mr. Hussein seemed a bit stunned, swinging his head in their direction.

They were talking about Moktada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric whose militia is now committing some of the worst violence in the sectarian fighting; he is the son of a revered Shiite cleric, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, whom many believe Mr. Hussein ordered murdered.

“Moktada?” he spat out, mixing sarcasm and disbelief.
As Hussein is the symbol of Sunni Iraq, Moktada al-Sadr is the symbol of Shiite Iraq. The guards were obviously supporters of Moktada al-Sadr, therefore Shiite.

The inappropriate wordplay continued:
Mr. Rubaie [Iraq’s national security adviser], standing shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Hussein, asked him about the killing of the elder Mr. Sadr.

They were standing so close to each other that others could not hear the exchange.

One of the guards, though, became angry. “You have destroyed us,” the masked man yelled. “You have killed us. You have made us live in destitution.”

Mr. Hussein was scornful: “I have saved you from destitution and misery and destroyed your enemies, the Persians and Americans.”

The guard cursed him. “God damn you.”

Mr. Hussein replied, “God damn you.”
In a government of law, not of men, the guard present at an execution does not curse the condemned.

Michigan professor Juan Cole has more at
One thing is certain: The trial and execution of Saddam were about revenge, not justice. Instead of promoting national reconciliation, this act of revenge helped Saddam portray himself one last time as a symbol of Sunni Arab resistance, and became one more incitement to sectarian warfare.


Even the crimes for which he was tried were a source of ethnic friction. Saddam Hussein had had many Sunni Arabs killed, and a trial on such a charge could have been politically savvy. Instead, he was accused of the execution of scores of Shiites in Dujail in 1982.


When Saddam visited Dujail, Dawa agents attempted to assassinate him. In turn, he wrought a terrible revenge on the town's young men. Current Prime Minister al-Maliki is the leader of the Dawa Party and served for years in exile in its Damascus bureau. For a Dawa-led government to try Saddam, especially for this crackdown on a Dawa stronghold, makes it look to Sunni Arabs more like a sectarian reprisal than a dispassionate trial for crimes against humanity.


The tribunal also had a unique sense of timing when choosing the day for Saddam's hanging. It was a slap in the face to Sunni Arabs. This weekend marks Eid al-Adha, the Holy Day of Sacrifice, on which Muslims commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son for God. Shiites celebrate it Sunday. Sunnis celebrate it Saturday –- and Iraqi law forbids executing the condemned on a major holiday. Hanging Saddam on Saturday was perceived by Sunni Arabs as the act of a Shiite government that had accepted the Shiite ritual calendar.
I will never agree with a state sanctioned execution. But this one is certainly consistent with the United States’ current foreign policy. You’re either with us, or against us. And if you are our enemy, and we can find you, we’ll kill you.

This is the foreign policy of the weak. Only the weak must kill all their enemies to claim victory. The strong do not fear the mere existence of their enemies. The strong are confident in their decisions and are not worried about any challenge their enemies may mount.

I believe the United States is strong. I believe Americans can be strong. We do not have to rule the world to be the leaders of the world. The strong are merciful precisely because they are strong. The weak can never show mercy because of fear.

We should have shown mercy with Hussein. The United States should have lobbied for Hussein to not be executed, but to spend his life in prison. In a country torn in half by sectarian violence, a show of mercy would have been the right message to send, not another merciless killing.

Yes, I know. Hussein showed no mercy to the thousands of people he ordered killed. This is true. But Hussein was weak. He could show no mercy. The life he saved might have come back to kill him one day and he feared this.

If we are strong, we should not fear a living, breathing Saddam Hussein. But it is too late to be merciful. Hussein is dead. Was it justice? Or, just revenge?


Anonymous said...

"But this one is certainly consistent with the United States’ current foreign policy. You’re either with us, or against us. And if you are our enemy, and we can find you, we’ll kill you."

The policies of the current admin in general are a perfect example of a "dualistic" system which Aristotle defined as "the law of the excluded middle" in which everything is black or not black, discounting any other possiblities. This kind of thinking instills fear and, as you say, the strong do not fear the existence of their enemies.

slate said...

Thanks, da po', I'd been thinking about this all weekend and had drawn the same conclusions. Thanks for having the balls to write it.