The shameful hanging of Saddam Hussein.

A wartime lexicon.
Jan. 2 2007 1:00 PM

Lynching the Dictator

On Saturday morning, the United States helped to officiate at a human sacrifice.

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I think that there is a reason the Kurdish reaction is somewhat different from the Shiite one. Iraqi Kurdistan escaped from Saddam's rule in 1992, and its citizens have since been engaged in patiently building up their autonomy. They did not have to endure the appalling humiliation of sanctions plus Saddam, and they have not since been so much engaged in a foul civil war begun by Sunni extremists desecrating shrines and slaughtering civilians. Their attitude to their former despot and murderer is somewhat more detached and judicious. If they feel a thirst for vengeance, they do not make a tribal fiesta of it. The moral difference here is not negligible.

Reporting from defeated Germany in 1945, and noticing some brutal treatment of captured SS men, George Orwell wrote a brilliant essay called "Revenge Is Sour." I hadn't thought of it for a while but pulled it down from the shelf when I returned from Iraq. Here is the key passage:

Properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also.

Who would not have jumped for joy, in 1940, at the thought of seeing S.S. officers kicked and humiliated? But when the thing becomes possible, it is merely pathetic and disgusting. It is said that when Mussolini's corpse was exhibited in public, an old woman drew a revolver and fired five shots into it, exclaiming, "Those are for my five sons!" It is the kind of story that the newspapers make up, but it might be true. I wonder how much satisfaction she got out of those five shots, which, doubtless, she had dreamed years earlier of firing. The condition of her being able to get near enough to Mussolini to shoot at him was that he should be a corpse.

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The shabby, tawdry scene of Muqtada Sadr's riffraff taunting their defenseless former tyrant evokes exactly this quality of hysterical falsity and bravado. While Saddam Hussein was alive, they cringed. Now, they find their lost courage, and meanwhile take the drill and the razor blade and the blowtorch to their fellow Iraqis. To watch this abysmal spectacle as a neutral would be bad enough. To know that the U. S. government had even a silent, shamefaced part in it is to feel something well beyond embarrassment.

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