The disgusting video of Saddam Hussein's last moments on the planet is more than a reminder of the inescapable barbarity of capital punishment and of the intelligible and conventional reasons why it should always be opposed. The zoolike scenes in that dank, filthy shed (it seems that those attending were not even asked to turn off their cell phones or forbidden to use them to record souvenir film) were more like a lynching than an execution. At one point, one of the attending magistrates can be heard appealing for decency and calm, but otherwise the fact must be faced: In spite of his mad invective against "the Persians" and other traitors, the only character with a rag of dignity in the whole scene is the father of all hangmen, Saddam Hussein himself.
How could it have come to this? Did U.S. officials know that the designated "executioners" would be the unwashed goons of Muqtada Sadr's "Mahdi Army"—the same sort of thugs who killed Abdul Majid al-Khoei in Najaf just after the liberation and who indulge in extra-judicial murder of Iraqis every night and day? Did our envoys and representatives ask for any sort of assurances before turning over a prisoner who was being held under the Geneva Conventions? According to the New York Times, there do seem to have been a few insipid misgivings about the timing and the haste, but these appear to have been dissolved soon enough and replaced by a fatalistic passivity that amounts, in theory and practice, to acquiescence in a crude Shiite coup d'état. Thus, far from bringing anything like "closure," the hanging ensures that the poison of Saddamism will stay in the Iraqi bloodstream, mingling with other related infections such as confessional fanaticism and the sort of video sadism that has until now been the prerogative of al-Qaida's dehumanized ghouls. We have helped to officiate at a human sacrifice. For shame.
In Baghdad last week, I missed the best chance I shall ever have to mention rope in the house of a hanged man. The house belonged to Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, Saddam's repellent half-brother and one of the two men who are now scheduled to follow him through the trapdoor. These days, it serves as the office of President Jalal Talabani, with whom I was invited to take lunch. The television was showing the trial of Saddam and his associates for the Anfal campaign, that ruthless and mechanized devastation of Iraqi Kurdistan and the systematic slaughter and clearance of its people by conventional and chemical weaponry. Every Kurd I know was eager to see this episode properly aired in court and placed on the record for all time, with its chief perpetrator on hand to be confronted with his deeds. Instead, the said chief perpetrator was snatched from the dock—in the very middle of his trial—and thrown as a morsel to one of the militias. This sort of improvised "offing" is not even a parody of the serious tribunal that history demands.
I couldn't help but notice that President Talabani was unwilling to be drawn on the subject of the death penalty, to which he is opposed. He might have been forgiven a bit of gloating after all that his people had endured, but he denied himself the pleasure. I also couldn't help noticing that when the Iraqi "appeals court" confirmed the death sentence (after a period of time so short that it would be insulting to describe it as a judicial review), it stipulated that not even the president could commute the sentence. In other words, the need of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to ingratiate himself with Muqtada Sadr's forces has been allowed to take precedence over everything else, including the stern requirements of justice that were the supposed point of the trial to begin with. The timing—isn't anyone in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad paid to notice this kind of thing?—was explicitly designed to rub every kind of humiliation into Iraqi Sunnis. It profaned their observance of the Eidul-Adha holiday, while gratifying the Shiite fundamentalists whose ceremonies begin one day later. To have made the butcher Saddam into a martyr, to have gratified one sect, and to have cheated millions of Iraqis and Kurds of the chance for a full accounting—what a fine day's work!