Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Don't cry for Saddam and his "show trial"

The loaded phrases "show trial" and "show execution" have been used by the Left recently to describe the judicial proceedings regarding Saddam Hussein (just Google "Saddam 'show trial'" and you'll find plenty more examples).

Ah, the Left should know about "show trials"-they championed them and applauded them (and practically invented them), back in Moscow in the thirties. Take a look and you'll see a description of a bunch of real show trials.

It's part of the debasement of language that Saddam's trial can be called a "show trial." I've read many essays that make that accusation, and most of them seem to have no conception of what a show trial actually is, or what might be wrong with it.

There's nothing inherently wrong, for example, about a trial that is for public consumption. In that sense, of course, Saddam's trial is "for show;" how could it not be? The same was true for the Nuremberg trials, the proceedings that set the precedent for trying leaders of a defeated regime for the offenses known as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that trying a defeated former dictator and tyrant in a court of law is an inherently murky situation. The law is not really designed to deal with this sort of thing--war is. The idea of bringing defeated heads of state to trial is a relatively new one, and international law is confused on how to deal with it, as well (just look at what happened with Milosevic).

What are the alternatives to such a trial? The tyrant can get off scot-free and go to a cushy exile somewhere like Saudi Arabia, where he gets to die in bed at a ripe old age. This, for example, is what happened to the notorious Idi Amin of Uganda. To most, that's a solution that fails abysmally in serving the cause of justice.

The second alternative, the time-honored and traditional approach, is to kill the leaders in question without even the pretense of a legal proceeding, if the opportunity presents itself. After all, such dictators tend to be violently deposed; it's very unusual for a person of this type to give up power voluntarily. Live by the sword die by the sword, and all that. And this might have happened to Saddam at the very moment he climbed out of his hiding hole.

But the decision was made to do something more progressive. It's considered an advance over that kind of summary justice to have a trial; that's what happened with Saddam. And of course such a trial, by its very nature, must be "for show." That is, it is for the people of the country in question--as well as other tyrants of like ilk, and the world--to view.

The purpose? To show the superiority of court justice to the random murders the person in question has perpetrated. To allow the traumatized people of the dictator's country the satisfaction of seeing the formerly all-powerful leader brought low by the justice system, and forced to watch the proceedings as his own crimes are paraded before him.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with that sort of "show." It represents an improvement of sorts over the first two alternatives mentioned. Certainly, no one would suggest that a secret trial would be better. No, there's no way around the fact that trying a former dictator is inherently a "show," in the sense of an object lesson and a demonstration. But that's not the "show" that makes a trial a true "show trial."

It's often said that "show trials" are ones in which the outcome is a foregone conclusion and the guilt of the accused is known. But that can't be the definition, either, because then all such trials of former mass murdering dictators would be "show trials." After all, it's not as though they are routine suspects picked up because they happen to fit the description of some eyewitness to a crime.

No, their crimes are already well known and documented, and their identity is not in question. So of course, by the time a trial of such a leader commences, even though they are de jure legally innocent till proven guilty, it's realistic to say that they are de facto regarded as guilty by most who have followed their history (which, after all, is mostly in the public domain). The trial functions--and cannot help but function--more as a documentation and demonstration of that fact.

There's no way around that truth. The mental gymnastics required to ignore Saddam's known and vast history of human rights abuses are too much for most people to perform. Nor does this mean his trial is inherently unfair.

His trial, of course, was imperfect in terms of the definition the ACLU would give for such things. It was an Iraqi proceeding, and each country's legal system is quite different. But there's no question that Saddam was not railroaded. Nor was he convicted of crimes he did not commit. Nor was he tortured to extract some sort of confession. And these elements are the key attributes of "show trials," such as the Moscow variety.

The Moscow trials were applauded by American Communists and supporters of the time, however. The following was typical of the reaction:

...Communist Party leader Harry Pollitt, in the Daily Worker of March 12, 1936 told the world that "the trials in Moscow represent a new triumph in the history of progress." The article was ironically illustrated by a photograph of Stalin with Nikolai Yezhov, himself shortly to vanish and his photographs airbrushed from history by NKVD archivists. In the United States, Communist proponents such as Corliss Lamont and Lillian Hellman also denounced criticism of the Moscow trials, signing "An Open Letter To American Liberals" in support of the trials for the March 1937 issue of Soviet Russia Today.

Later, even Khrushchev acknowledged that the trials were, quite simply, frameups to get rid of Stalin's enemies, the confessions that so impressed Western Leftists extracted by torture. In Orwell's chilling 1984, he based the treatment of Winston Smith at least partly on the example of these trials and similar ones staged by the Communists.

It's an interesting example of projection, once again, that Leftists today make the charge of "show trial" towards Saddam Hussein's, when the Left presided over the most prominent example of the genre in recent memory. And, by the elastic definition the Left now holds of the term "show trial," no trial of a former dictator for war crimes could help but be a "show trial," because all are conducted with an eye to the purpose of "showing" to the world what that leader has done, all begin with factual knowledge of the perpetrator's well-known guilt, all have elements of vengeance for the terrible crimes committed, and all have partly political aims.

There is absolutely no way to avoid these things. But trials such as Saddam's lack the elements that would make a trial truly a "show trial" and a sham: framing the innocent with trumped-up charges, confessions and testimony extracted by torture (true torture, by the way, which isn't the same as sleep deprivation).

However, if the Left ever gets its chance to try Bush and Rumsfeld for war crimes, you can rest assured they'll consider those to be no "show trials" at all, but the fairest of fair proceedings.

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