Friday, December 29, 2006

Dead Man Walking

Saddam Hussein is about to die -- possibly within the hour -- and it's damned difficult to claim that that's a bad thing, in and of itself. People are welcome to disagree on the subject of capital punishment, and I certainly have expressed many doubts about the process even here in the U.S., but I maintain the principle that some people are simply vile enough to earn a hasty dispatch, and Hussein certainly fit that bill.

But this is a case fraught with special circumstances, obviously, and as such, it bears tight scrutiny. This is a case where the practical utility of executing Hussein is at least as important as the symbolism of it all. Everyone at least assumes that a spike in violence will accompany the official announcement of Hussein's death; how much or how long is anyone's guess.

So how many more people should die to accommodate the necessary symbolism of the deed -- one hundred; five hundred; ten thousand? That last is not an unreasonable long-term estimate; dozens of mangled bodies are found on a daily basis as it is. Hussein certainly turned Iraq into a fearful, paranoid charnel house with his brutal, thuggish rule, but he's not the only one in the country capable of it. Now there are many squads of would-be Saddams, not remotely contained or leveraged like the old boss, flawed as that arrangement was.

Would it be worth letting him rot away in prison, old and pathetic, to prevent him from becoming a misbegotten martyr, an artificial rallying point for Sunni insurgents? Does his execution -- by the very people whom he was convicted of murdering, no less -- serve as a Shi'a rallying point, a means for them to overtly assert their power in what was supposed to be a "unified" government?

According to Iraq law the convicted person has the right to see family 24 hours before the death sentence is carried out. Yesterday, Saddam said good-bye to his two brothers. And a top Iraq official said Saddam Hussein would be executed before six am. Saturday, Baghdad time, that's tonight at 10 PM Eastern/7 PM Pacific.

That would make sense from a security perspective. Hang Saddam before the Eid al-Adha holiday begins. Under the cover of darkness and then announce it at dawn. With daylight US troops would have a better idea as to what would be coming at them.

This writer has had his own personal experiences with Saddam Hussein. I watched from the roof of the Tel Aviv Hilton in 1991 as Iraq scuds slowly hovered over and fell onto Israel soil. One missed my home in Ramat Gan by only 200 meters. I have no sympathy for Saddam Hussein. But nor do I care to see Saddam turned into a martyr.

Saddam should rot in jail but should not be hanged. What would his hanging serve? He was not responsible for 9/11, no weapons of mass destruction were found (though I suspect they did exist earlier) and it was rumored his administration had met with the US Embassy the day before invading Kuwait and was given a green light by the US. And the war crimes that Saddam is accused of occured in 1982.
Why didn't the international community take action then? Why only after 2001?

Saddam's death will only serve to polarize more moderate Muslims. It will not make them fear the US, England or Israel even more so.

Islamic terrorists embrace death. They do not fear it. So who is the US punishing?

Robert Baer of TIME Magazine states: "If the deposed Iraqi leader is executed now, the country's Sunnis will always think of Saddam's rule as a golden era. Now is not the time to execute Saddam Hussein. With Iraq still under coalition occupation, as far as Iraqis are concerned the rope around Saddam's neck will be American. The Shi'a and the Kurds may not care whose rope it is - they just want the man dead and their pound of revenge. But for the Sunni, Saddam will become an instant martyr." Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, could not be more correct.

Again, I have no problem with capital punishment in principle, but the endless fetishizing of it is certainly exhausting to even attempt to defend. I think the principle is elemental in nature -- some motherfuckers simply don't deserve to live, period -- but there is nothing to be gained by allowing the specific subjects of the process to be turned into political totems.

So if Hussein is going to die after all -- in about forty minutes now and counting -- one hopes that at least we have carefully thought through all the practical ramifications of this, what it means for us, what it will mean for the Iraqis, whether it's an inadvertent (or, for that matter, deliberate) show of support for one side over another, something that will automatically translate directly into further lives lost, further bloodshed, further unnecessary pain for people who did nothing wrong in the first place, but are simply written off as collateral damage.

One hopes that we took all that into consideration, but I think we know better than that by now. Iraq has long been a place without hope, and executing Hussein is not going to change that one iota.

Mark Bowden's Atlantic piece from 2002 is still probably the most seminal profile to date on Hussein and his regime.

[Update 9:55PM PST: Well, the deed has been done, and good riddance to the rotten bastard. All we can do now is cross our fingers and hope that other wheels aren't set in motion, and that our actions aren't playing into the direct advantage of a single sect or neighboring power.

I think the most bizarre factoid I heard, just a little while ago on MSNBC, was that Bush was asleep when he was given the news. (This AP article affirms it, about halfway through.) That would have been around 9:00 PM Central at the ol' tumbleweed farm. Nothing quite like this has happened since World War 2, I believe, and the fucking guy still hits the hay at nine o'clock sharp (presumably) knowing what's going on. What the hell is wrong with this guy; is he six years old or something? That perfectly exemplifies the utterly incapable, incurious, unconscionable facade of actual leadership that is personified in Oedipus Tex.

And in the end, at least one of Hussein's former associates was able to keep all his houses -- including the one in Santo Domingo.

Note that the crimes for which Saddam Hussein was just executed were committed in 1982, more than a year before this infamous photo was taken. Did Rumsfeld have direct knowledge of the Dujail massacre? Does anyone seriously think it would have mattered?]

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