Saturday, December 30, 2006

Mistah Saddam: he dead

It has been announced that Saddam Hussein was executed by hanging a few hours ago.

I'm not a death penalty fan. But I've always realized that there are some situations in which execution seems only appropriate.

A trial of Adolf Hitler would have been one of them, if he hadn't finessed the situation by killing himself first. It's difficult to see how keeping him alive after a trial would have been anything but a trivialization of the enormity of his crimes.

Saddam wasn't Hitler, but he was definitely evil enough, and on a large enough scale, to justify the death penalty. His continued existence would have had other dangers, as well--it would represent a rallying point for future hopes of a Baathist resurgence.

Unlike Saddam, Hitler cheated his executioner, as did the clever Goering, who managed to swallow poison just a few hours before he was due to hang. Then there was Milosevic, who died during his four-year-long trial, which had seemed interminable up till that point.

But many other prominent Nazis were executed after being sentenced at the Nuremberg trials, and the disposal of their bodies was treated with great care. Photographs were taken and distributed to prove they were actually dead (the same, apparently, is true of Saddam; as I write this, the photos and videos are expected to be released shortly). But after that documentation, the bodies of the executed Nazis were thoroughly destroyed, to avoid any possibility of a grave with remains that could inspire veneration and devotion in followers:

Afterwards, the bodies of the executed were photographed and, writes Anthony Read in The Devil’s Disciples (W.W. Norton, 2004), “wrapped in mattress covers, sealed in coffins, then driven off in army trucks . . . to a crematorium in Munich, which had been told to expect the bodies of fourteen American soldiers. The coffins were opened up for inspection . . . before being loaded into the cremation ovens. That same evening, a container holding all the ashes” — including those belonging to Field Marshal Hermann Göring, who had committed suicide a few hours earlier — “was driven away into the Bavarian countryside, in the rain. It stopped in a quiet lane about an hour later, and the ashes were poured into a muddy ditch.”

The Soviets and the Chinese Communists, on the other hand, have managed to make the bodies of their mass murderers into Madame Tussaud-like figures, embalmed and displayed as relics in shrines that have an almost religious quality (see this post I once wrote on that strange and grisly subject).

Mussolini, on the other hand, would probably have preferred any of the previous body dispositions to his actual fate--a fate that was on Hitler's mind when he not only shot himself, but also gave orders for the destruction of his own corpse to prevent it from falling into the hands of his enemies.

Mussolini had been executed by Communist partisans, his body dumped in a public square, then strung up and beaten and otherwise desecrated by a crowd that had gathered. But he was later cut down and buried in a family plot, which became the focus of visits by neo-Fascist admirers.

What will happen to Saddam's remains is unclear. His daughter is requesting temporary burial in Yemen, until Iraq can be "liberated" and he can be reinterred there. She is probably well aware of the tradition of destroying the bodies of executed dictators, and the reason this is done. She's clearly hoping for some almost-Soviet style veneration in Saddam's future. A fitting wish, since Saddam himself was a great admirer of Uncle Joe Stalin, the butcher of millions who himself died peacefully of natural causes--or did he?.

[ADDENDUM: The precedent of the past isn't being followed: Saddam's burial place is known, in his home base of Tikrit, about two miles from the graves of his sons. Thus, shrine possibilities remain intact.]

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