Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Saddam's justice: a tale of two videos

There's a bootleg video of Saddam's execution circulating online. Taken surrepticiously by a witness with a cellphone camera (the photographer has since been arrested), it shows a semi-carnival atmosphere, with the former dictator being mocked and exchanging taunts with some in the crowd before he is hung.

The Iraqis were in charge at that point. US officials say they would have done it differently, in an atmosphere of greater dignity. I believe them--and, from the descriptions of the video (I haven't watched it), it would have been an improvement on what actually happened.

The footage of the execution has been condemned as inflammatory and likely to incite Sunnis. Perhaps this is true--although lately, predictions of what the "Arab street" will do have been dismal. But there's little question the Iraqi government is unhappy that the footage was taken and released; it definitely shows the event as less controlled and more mob-like than they would liked it to have been.

And yet, when observers who number among a tyrant's victims are witnesses to his execution, it's almost inevitable that they will have a hard time keeping their mouths shut. I wrote previously about what happened to Mussolini's body, for example; these images from Saddam's execution fall very far short of that sort of desecration, obviously.

But it's just as obvious that it would have been better if no taunting and exchange of insults had occurred at all. Yes, Saddam's execution was way too much of a "spectacle," and it's unfortunate that it happened that way.

However, it's hard to get too incensed at the Shiites involved for giving vent to their emotions, considering the murders Saddam perpetrated against that group (although it's easier to blame them for their support of al Sadr; apparently they shouted his name as part of the taunting). And the words ""The tyrant has fallen," which were spoken around the moment Saddam died, seem only appropriate.

There can be no comparison whatsoever between the emotional outbursts that marred the "dignity" of Saddam's last moments (and in which he, by the way, participated, giving back as good as he got), and the lack of "dignity" he afforded his own victims when he was in power. Everyone knows about the gassings, the rape rooms, the torture.

But I want to focus on another chilling sequence, back when Saddam first came to power.

Saddam was originally right hand man to his cousin Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, President of Iraq in the early 60s. Together, they eliminated rivals and modernized Iraq. The realpolitik of those Cold War times made the US take their side against Soviet-sympathetic rivals. The US role was not pretty, but it seemed pragmatic at the time, the best of a bunch of bad choices in the region.

And yet Saddam hadn't shown his true colors yet. Murders of rival factions in Iraq were par for the course in those days--each modern succession had been accomplished by the assassination of the previous rulers. As al Bakr's second in command, Saddam was the architect of a strong internal security apparatus, it's true. But he also:

...became personally associated with Ba'athist welfare and economic development programs in the eyes of many Iraqis, widening his appeal both within his traditional base and among new sectors of the population. These programs were part of a combination of "carrot and stick" tactics to enhance support in the working class, the peasantry, and within the party and the government bureaucracy. Saddam's organizational prowess was credited with Iraq's rapid pace of development in the 1970s; development went forward at such a fevered pitch that two million persons from other Arab countries and Yugoslavia worked in Iraq to meet the growing demand for labor.

But Saddam's real goal was his own personal power, and to that end he slowly usurped his cousin's rule, taking charge of the country years before he formally became President in 1979 by pushing his cousin out for good (although he didn't murder him).

It was at that point, finally in control, that Saddam's Stalinesque tendencies became fully visible, in a true "show trial" of staggering sadistic intent (and note that Saddam had the proceedings videotaped):

No sooner had [Saddam attained the Presidency] than he purged the party’s Revolutionary Command Council. Hussein announced the discovery of a plot against himself and the Baathist regime. Then he held a kind of show trial, which he videotaped. The footage shows party members gathered in a large auditorium. Saddam Hussein is on stage, smoking a cigar. The alleged plot leader confesses his crime. Then he reads out the names of his supposed co-conspirators. As their names are called out they are led from the hall to be arrested and shot. Members of the audience shout out their allegiance to Saddam Hussein.

Here's another description:

You notice the mounting hysteria as nobody knows quite who’s name is going to be called out next. And so of course this means that the survivors cheer even more frenziedly for Saddam Hussein. It’s a very chilling documentary. But Saddam Hussein wanted that to be seen. This was an exercise of power which he would use to impress upon the surviving Baathists in Iraq that he had absolute control over their lives and deaths.

According to Kanan Makiya:

And when the firing squad is assembled to execute these so-called traitors who does he use but the remaining members of the Revolutionary Command Council and his own ministers and so on to implicate them in a sense in his own rise to power. Because that is the event upon which he cements his own presidency.

At this point, the cult of Saddam had taken over. And that's the way most of his decisions as President went; they were all about power, and about him. Shortly thereafter he managed to undo all the economic good the previous regime had accomplished by launching an ill-thought-out war on Iran, lasting eight years and accomplishing absolutely nothing except the death of hundreds of thousands (perhaps a million) of his own people, as well as huge numbers of Iranians. Next he pursued weapons of mass destruction at Osirik. Stupidity and desire for power also marked his Kuwait endeavor, although the length and the human cost of that foray weren't as high as in the Iran war.

But back to that earlier video of the assembly of Party officials, Saddam's show of sadistic force. It's everything they say it is, and more. I've seen it myself, years ago, and I never forgot it. The look of satisfaction and enjoyment on the man's face was extraordinary, the fear on the faces of his victims starkly chilling.

This was the essence of Saddam. If Iraq is a bloodthirsty place today, and if people are itching for revenge and accustomed to murder, Saddam, more than anyone else, is responsible for that. The video of his execution pales in comparison, I'm afraid.

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