[i] This article first appeared here and in the Morning Star newspaper in October 2005, and is reproduced in light of recent developments in the news. [/i]
Should the despot be hanged? Once convicted, does he deserve the dignity of living out his years in a comfortable cell, given that he has denied his many victims such basic respect at every step? Let us leave aside for now the consideration that wherever there is talk of retribution you will find human beings at their most shamefully vindictive, barbaric and, by extension, hypocritical. The very fact of this debate, on such comfortable territory and such a time-honoured tradition for the mass media, serves to distract us from the more critical issue. Namely, that of the legitimacy of the trial itself. That what we are witnessing are the opening acts in an epic show-trial in which the victims of the despot will be let down worse than anyone else.
The sadly pervasive “madman” view of history – that most wars and genocides can be attributed solely to the unspeakable pathological criminality of insane megalomaniacs – has again taken hold here. From this perspective, it follows that the despot’s victims need only vent their collective anger at the deposed tyrant in a single cathartic burst of retributive violence, in the manner of biblical judgement. There are many in Washington who would wish that bleeding-hearted Europe would accept that this is the right and proper outcome. There are probably also a considerable number of Iraqis who are of this opinion. But, as has been made clear enough in domestic debates on law and order, those demagogues who cite the needs of victims as the overriding consideration are usually motivated by a quite unrelated consideration – namely the rule of force over the rule of law, in order to consolidate political power.
For the “madman” view of history provides for a gross distortion. For the years of horror under Saddam happened because of a number of complicit factors. The Americans will not relinquish control of this trial because a fair trial in Europe would mean a number of things that are unacceptable to Washington – in particular the possibility that Donald Rumsfeld and may be called as a witness by Saddam’s lawyers. Who knows how many members of the Reagan Administration could quite legitimately be asked to explain what they were doing arming Saddam to the teeth throughout the 1980s, opening a Pandora’s box of insinuations of moral complicity that would undermine the moral basis of the entire corrupt Iraq mission, exposing it on an unprecedented, truly international platform. What of the unscrupulous French and German companies who supplied Saddam with the means of gassing the Kurds of Halabja? Will we perhaps see a calling to account of British ministers like Sir Douglas Hurd and David Mellor, who were welcome guests of the tyrant as he gassed the Kurds? Perhaps some bleeding-hearted European judge would have allowed a court to look further back, to 1968 and the CIA-orchestrated coup which installed the Ba’ath Party in Iraq.
So if we are to talk, as so many have talked, of what the West “owes” the Iraqi people, it must surely be that the tyrant must be brought to full account – that the truth of the last thirty-five years be told in an impartial arena, that no detail be left out. The arrogance of a superpower will almost certainly mean that this will not happen; Saddam will not be tried in the Hague, but in Iraq, by a court responsible to the occupying power. That Iraqis will judge Saddam is, we are told, natural justice in action. This notion, designed to pander to perceived racialism on the part of the Arabs themselves, is as insulting as it is flagrantly racist. The skin colour of the judge and jurors notwithstanding, the whole world will see this trial for the sham that it is. The perception – already pervasive in the Arab world – that the United States considers itself quite above the law, will be reaffirmed. The “madman” will be convicted, and the men who created him will endorse the verdict and the trial more solemnly and unequivocally than anyone else. For theirs will be the greatest relief – the knowledge that they and their successors will be free to go ahead and make more Saddams in other countries as and when it suits them. Meanwhile victimhood will make a martyr of Saddam himself. I can think of no more shameful way to mock the memory of Saddam’s victims. Against this context, the debate over the death penalty effectively acts as a fig-leaf of legitimacy to these proceedings, as a debate over correct punishment necessarily presupposes the legitimacy of the prosecuting body.