Taking out Saddam

January 22, 2007

It wasn’t always like this. Once, the destruction of the tyrant was a public event.

In 1649 England’s Charles I, condemned to death, was led through London by a regiment of foot-soldiers, “with colors flying, drums beating,” according to a contemporary account. His scaffold was bordered in black, the decking covered in black. Charles delivered a lengthy oration to the multitude, tucked his hair under a nightcap to clear a path for the ax and, his head on the block, signaled his executioner to proceed, while Parliament issued a proclamation denouncing his “notorious Treasons, Tyrannies, and murders…”

Louis XVI, on the morning of his execution in 1793, was driven two hours in an open carriage, flanked by 1,200 horsemen, through crowds of thousands of Parisians to where he was guillotined. From the scaffold a young man brandished the king’s fresh-cut head to the populace and made lewd gestures, while the crowd jeered.

When partisans in Northern Italy caught up with Benito Mussolini and his retinue in April 1945, they quickly tried and convicted Il Duce and shot him dead, along with his mistress and cronies. Then, in deference to the public’s right to see, the executioners hung the bodies by their feet from a scaffold at an Esso gas station in downtown Milan. Photos of the hanging corpses, arms outstretched, made newspapers worldwide, emblems of the cascading fall of fascism.

So to Saddam Hussein. Three weeks ago the butcher of Baghdad was led to a dank chamber, in the dead of night, by a squad of black-hooded hangmen. He’d been condemned after a seemingly interminable, but curiously under-reported, trial for an atrocity that, in the narrative of his reign, was little more than a comma.

In the end Saddam conducted himself with a measure of dignity, or at least defiance, before the taunts of his executioners. He was last seen dropping through a trapdoor, a noose around his neck. His hanging would have gone wholly unrecorded if not for grainy cell phone videos members of his death squad took.

Predictably, there was a fuss over the handling of Saddam’s end, that it was unprofessional, needlessly cruel and, because it seemed to confirm fears of Iraqi Sunnis that their state is in the grip of vengeful Shiites, it was sectarian.

My interest is in why it was so nonpublic. After all, we went to war over this guy. Once you dismiss the claims about weapons of mass destruction, terrorist breeding grounds and revenge for 9/11, didn’t all the devastation arise from a mission aimed at ridding the world of a tyrant?

U.S. media, whose so-called entertainment arms routinely soak us with make-believe blood, agonized over the decency of showing too much of Saddam’s real-life last moments.

Taste matters, to be sure, especially when the visual record has the quality of an amateur porn film. But with countless Iraqis dead — nearly 34,500 violent deaths in 2006 alone, according to the latest United Nations estimates — and with some 3,000 Americans dead and 10 times that many hurt and maimed, what lesson do we draw from this bashfulness over Saddam?

An answer, I think, lies in the language of ceremonies. The proud and pitiless ways in which the victors crushed tyrants in the past were moments of civic rectification. The deeds had to be done — and if not done, had to be accounted for — publicly. The executioners were agents of a popular vindication, and they acted publicly with confidence their actions would be ratified.

Saddam’s execution, though unceremonious, was still a kind of ceremony. It came across as a lynching, the furtive killing of a small-time criminal by a squad of angry irregulars who, unsteady about their authority, concealed themselves against the possibility of reprisal.

He was, in the current flip usage, “taken out.” There was none of the formality a grave act of state demands. There was no presence for the broad masses of Iraqi — not to mention Kuwaiti or, for that matter, Iranian — people who suffered, no alumni of his torture chambers, no emissaries of those who died in Kurdish and Shi’ite uprisings. It was as if a private score was being settled.

Saddam’s execution was the act of a state unconvinced of its own legitimacy and permanence. But then, if the Iraqi state was powerful and confident, if it clearly commanded the allegiance and respect of the Iraqi masses, it might not have put Saddam to death at all.

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