Saddam, a Rope, and a Great Escape

Did the dictator's execution create just another Iraqi ghost?


The trouble with Saddam Hussein's execution was that, in its sordidness, it was a fitting finale for an aging despot who once dispatched tens of thousands of people in a like manner; but it was also unfortunate for what was demanded of that particular Iraqi moment. In recent days, there has been outrage against the way Saddam was hanged. Much offense was taken from the fact that in his final moments he had to endure the insults of onlookers. Something more solemn was apparently required, so the putting to death would look like a meaningful sacrifice rather than a squalid settling of scores. Near the end, someone in the room declared: "Long live Mohammad Baqer al-Sadr." It seemed suitable that that name would come up - the name of the founder of the Daawa party, whom Saddam had ordered murdered in spring 1980, along with his sister, the pious Bint al-Huda. His killing was a fundamental moment in the Iraqi leader's unremitting struggle to ward off the Tikriti regime's Shiite nemesis. As fate would have it, those Shiites for whom Saddam had displayed such contempt were the ones dropping him into the pit, on the orders of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, an official of Daawa.

There was also much commotion about the timing and haste of the execution. Saddam was hanged on Eid al-Adha, transgressing Iraqi law; the trapdoor was opened while he was in the middle of a sentence bearing witness that Mohammad was God's Prophet; and so forth. The imagery was unsettling, but the criticism missed the point. For a man who had ordered the bombing or plundering of myriad holy sites, whose intelligence services had murdered thousands of prisoners in their cells just to make more room for new ones, whose soldiers had slaughtered with unflinching barbarism hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, the hangman's rope was almost too polite a way to go - more than Saddam deserved. But it is not Saddam who should be the issue here; it is those who were cheated by his abrupt elimination.

It is the Kurds, who never got to see Saddam offer more details on the successive, genocidal Anfal campaigns of 1988. It is the Shiites, who were crushed after rising up against the Baathists in 1991 upon the advice of President George H.W. Bush, that tedious ghoul of political realism who must have been as surprised as anybody when the Iraqis took him seriously. It is the countless others, of all religions and sects, whose sons, daughters, siblings or parents ended up in Saddam's archipelago of prisons, detention centers, intelligence headquarters and torture chambers, to be beaten, raped, maimed or exterminated. To think of Saddam, to focus on his final moments of distress when there are so many others to think about, is almost obscene. But then there is the silence.

In the introduction to his book "Cruelty and Silence," the Iraqi author Kanan Makiya wrote: "If cruelty is individual, then silence is collective … Breaking the silence as a way of dealing with the legacy of cruelty is thus necessarily a collective act." Saddam's execution has reimposed a measure of silence, when his trial was supposed to serve precisely the opposite end. And where there is silence there is the perpetuation of the individualization of cruelty: At the very moment when his neck snapped, Saddam's crimes were again his own; no longer Iraq's.

In fact, Makiya's phrase was less abstract. He was talking specifically about the silence of Arab intellectuals when it came to confronting the brutality of Saddam's rule. For far too many in the region, the Iraqi leader became an embodiment of Arab greatness, pride and resilience. That such an attitude only exposed the Arab world's pathologies went unheeded. Saddam, whose understanding of power meant a careful manipulation of its symbols, saw that the essence of absolute leadership was the tyrant's ability to transform himself into a harsh father. Pitilessness could transform rare mercy into a magnificent favor. The flipside of existential fear is irrational love, and like Stalin, Saddam was loved most by those who feared him most. This is the essence of cowardliness.

One could excuse that phenomenon among the Iraqis, whose lives were in constant danger under the Baathists. But what justified the reaction of so many Arabs outside Iraq, who could never work up indignation over the regime's crimes yet now stand jowls trembling in condemnation of Saddam's hanging? Forgive the Palestinians their suffering, but weren't the victims of Israeli repression in a better position than most to ponder Saddam's savagery when accepting his compensation money for suicide bombings? Grant Arab intellectuals a dearth of heroes, but what kind of person shuffles into Baghdad on a dictator's expense account while free-minded Iraqis are being forcibly silenced? Spare a kind thought for the disillusioned purveyors of Arab solidarity, but can you explain why that solidarity was largely absent when the Iraqis overran Kuwait?

Makiya was right: The silence surrounding Saddam was collective, and it was far more striking than the ejaculations of resentment that on a daily basis are directed against the botched American adventure in Iraq. During the war against Iran, during Anfal, during the Shiite intifada, during the years of sanctions - sanctions that Saddam used to consolidate his own power by deepening the suffering of his people - the Arab world remained silent. Those were the years of Syrian-Iraqi reconciliation; of rapprochement between the Gulf states and Baghdad; of French, Russian and Chinese greed for Iraqi oil contracts. Had Saddam not been chased into a hole by a foreign army, he would still be tormenting his people, dusting his throne so that one of his homicidal sons might succeed him.

Saddam's execution was a lost opportunity for human rights in Iraq and the Arab world. I admit to taking much more satisfaction in seeing a despot corroding in a cell than being granted the freedom of a brisk death. Nor do I find that the death penalty has in any way ever dispensed "justice." But as we throw our two cents' worth into determining whether hanging was a worthy ending for Saddam, we would do better to disregard the monster and, instead, pay homage to the monster's victims.