It was not a cheerful sight, and it did little to brighten an essentially sad situation. The dictator fell in April and no one has ever suggested that his remaining alive was essential to the future of Iraq. So what has changed?
No one, surely, is arguing that entire communities were simply holding their breath, waiting for news of the former Iraqi president before making up their minds on the future of their country? Saddam was politically finished well before his capture. His regime was not a real threat, not even at the time it fell. How, in his spider-hole, could he constitute a danger? Certainly no one has ever questioned spokesmen for the Bush administration about the state of Saddam’s dental hygiene, though the Americans now appear to be in a position to answer such questions.
Saddam’s appearance immediately after his arrest was remarkably similar to that of many homeless people on the streets of US cities. He did not look like a worthy foe, and his image totally contradicted that portrayed by the US media. The video we have been shown must have been carefully edited for maximum effect, to show him at his most vulnerable, mouth open, nurse inspecting. The whole world has been offered a glimpse of Saddam’s mouth and its curiosity is now, presumably, satisfied.
The most humiliating images often tell the most about the contradictions of US propaganda. The average viewer would be right to wonder how, from this spider hole and in such a condition, Saddam is supposed to have led the Iraqi resistance. The Americans were pleased to present the video as a moral victory, to emphasise the contrast between their invincibility and the helplessness of their prey. An orderly capture, complete with medical examination. Live coverage of a man’s throat. Awe reduced to frailty. A weak and common man vulnerable even to toothache. Who knows? No control is ever complete without subjugating the body. Tyrants can kill the strongest but their power is never justified without a social contract.
People are not thinking of weapons of mass destruction and the myths spun about underground fortifications now. Viewers are not going to ask about the former dictator’s remarkable oversight in failing to orchestrate any escape scenario. People will not ask why he did not even build himself a proper exit passage. When historians ask such questions later they will do so far away from live coverage and media hype. After all, the moment a dictator is caught alive cannot be but one of disgrace and indignity.
All people seem to care about now is whether he was caught asleep, whether he was drugged, whether what he said to his Iraqi captors were words of defiance and manliness, of the type that captured their imagination while he led them from a catastrophe to another, or whether his words betrayed humiliation and defeat. Viewers were left to analyse what the members of the Governing Council — the "first" allowed by the Americans to meet him — would say. It seems that he levelled abuse at them. And it seems that the Americans protected him from their response, just as the Americans brought them to power. A pitiful sight, undoubtedly, and the Iraqis are not the winners in this scenario.
The new regime in Iraq has just found a field of authority, a space within which to exercise sovereignty. It will try Saddam, habeas corpus, brought from a hole in the ground to a courtroom shining with justice. Those who try Saddam are, by implication, the country’s new masters. The US is aware of this. For the moment it is assuming the role of the policeman in the Iraqi court. It will order the defendant to rise and ask for quiet in the courtroom. No harm in the policeman playing bailiff, so long as the subject of the trial is also the sovereignty and legitimacy of the new regime, and so long as Iraq is handing out contracts to US companies outside the courtroom. The rest is mere detail.
Pitiful scenes of celebrations in Iraqi streets are back, with red flags flying in Bremer’s honour. But those celebrating are not victors but avengers of a past that is gone forever. The celebration borders on lamentation. It is a pathetic scene. Saddam Hussein’s name used to send shivers down our spines when we were students. We would hear descriptions of the torture bordering on ritual in Saddam’s prisons. We loved our Iraqi comrades and we stood by them. We protested against those of our own parties that insisted on regarding Saddam’s regime as progressive and anti-imperialist, as "a friend of the Soviet Union". The regime crushed the communists, and in our youth we paid attention only to its communist victims. We conveniently overlooked the fact that the Soviet Union, which played host to some of Saddam’s dissidents, was even bloodier than Saddam’s regime. We felt for those closest to us, and overlooked the others.
A key Arab official had to comment, or was he made to comment? He said that Saddam’s capture was a remarkable event. How perceptive. Arab presidents and kings who attended Saddam’s military parades in Baghdad, who expressed admiration for his accomplishments and benefited from him in numerous ways, tangible and less so, sent cables to the US congratulating the administration. What they are doing is fighting for survival, just as Saddam did. He was ready to offer the Americans anything. He had bowed to their every condition since the Kuwait debacle. The only thing he wouldn’t give — and in this he is not unlike those who congratulate the Americans on his capture — was his rule. Despicable behaviour has always hidden behind nationalist demands. Those sending congratulations were also urging America to have an Iraqi, or even Arab, trial. That way the death sentence would be pronounced before the defendant has had the chance to elaborate on his relations with them.
A scene bereft of poetry, shorn of romance, devoid of beauty. A subterranean scene. The end of the chase.
History is of little help when it comes to dealing with the end of dictators. Mussolini was caught dressed as a German soldier in a caravan heading from north Italy to Innsbruck in Austria. He was killed on 28 April, 1945. His mistress Clara Petacci, who stayed with him till the end, was killed with him. Their bodies were mutilated. Mussolini had refused to withdraw along with the German army. He was not put on trial.
Adolf Hitler did not leave the headquarters of the Chancellery, with its fortified bunkers, as of January 1945. Once he realised that defeat was approaching, with armies closing in on Berlin, and once he had announced his disenchantment with his own people, he married his mistress Eva Braun at midnight on 29 April. He then appointed Karl Donitz and Joseph Goebbles as his successors. He committed suicide on 30 April. Eva killed herself with poison immediately afterwards. Their bodies were burned, upon his request, so that the enemies would not get hold of his body.
Stalin, the master of the lot, died a natural death on 5 March 1953. He had started to suspect his doctors, and was beginning to arrest them. He died thinking that old age was a conspiracy. His trial took place secretly at a party conference closed to the media.
Ceaucescu, frail of body and diminished in status, was captured on camera sticking his head out of an armoured vehicle in a Bucharest suburb. He was dragged, with his wife, from the vehicle and shot after a brief trial during which he remained defiant.
Batista, a small-time dictator even by the standards of his successor, escaped in 1959 to the Dominican Republic and then to the Portuguese island of Madeira, and from there to Lisbon. He died of old age.
Most tyrants become the subject of research after their death, with experts quibbling over their role in "building a modern state".
The idea of trying a dictator is alluring. "Ladies and Gentlemen, we got him." The announcement and the applause that followed would have done justice to the capture of a serial killer. The capture of such a killer ends crimes that have terrorised the public, crimes the perpetrator of which is usually a psychopath who stops murdering only when he is captured. The scene summoned images of a pathological killer lurking in a dark alley, a Jack the Ripper or Richard Speck figure. The West is obsessed with the idea of serial killers, an obsession expressed in art and literature, media and film. The perverted killer is tried, or treated, or becomes a subject of study which probes the dark recesses of the soul. The topic is commercialised, its environmental and genetic associations examined.
But the ousted dictator is not a serial killer. He is not the lone perpetrator of individual acts. His mental state does not relieve him of responsibility. His trial is the trial of a regime, of a period in history with a known beginning and unknown end.
Saddam is guilty without doubt, but so were his assistants, and their assistants and lackeys, and the intellectuals who sang his praises, and the journalists who spoke highly of him, and the Arab system that embraced him. The fact that it is the dictator that is wanted by the law does not make him singularly responsible.
I don’t know if it is better for Saddam to speak in court or keep silent. If he wants to spoil the scene he should keep his own council. Let his lawyers cross-examine the witnesses. Let them call more witnesses, not to exonerate him, for his fate is sealed, but to spoil the event. The trial, if it takes place, will be a media event, and it will be best for him to try to spoil it as much as possible. Some healthy embarrassment here, some useful confusion there. No harm in questioning those currently associated with the Iraqi opposition about their role in the former regime, about their currying of favour and compliance with criminal orders. No harm in summoning US witnesses, such as the secretary of defence, to testify about their meetings with Saddam Hussein, and their visits to Iraq after the use of chemical weapons in Halabja. No harm in requesting affidavits from Arab officials on their connections with Saddam and their financial dealings with him. No harm in summoning some of Saddam’s critics who were once busy trading oil and weapons with him. So long as the trial is underway, and so long as it needs to be portrayed as a display of justice, no harm in dragging more ghosts out of their spider holes. None of these accomplices — and here I am prepared to wager — would look any better than Saddam if left without a haircut for sixth months.
The trial will be a major production, a court drama featuring the very face of evil, complete with analysts and commentators testing our capacity to endure an overdose of their pinpoint observations.
For journalists searching for sound bites, tears, and fresh scandals, the trial will be a field day, what with witnesses breaking down as they give accounts of torture, what with the defendant’s fixed expression? Some will tell us of Saddam’s good deeds. Some will fail to make a link between the previous answer and the next. Some will publish lies and half-truths, wittingly and unwittingly, for pitiful reasons of their own. Experts and analysts will converge like a pack of hyenas on their prey. A National Geographic film may follow. Hotels will be full. The court will also attract writers and researchers who want to write a serious report or publish a new book. A veritable carnival is in the offing, surpassing that of Nuremberg.
In the Nuremberg trials attendance was restricted to serious journalists. Then people did not move so easily between capitals. There were no live relays, let alone a thousand competing ones.
We didn’t follow up the trial of Panama’s Noriega, who was indicted in a US court in 1989 and sentenced to 40 years in prison in 1992. The world only had a glimpse of Milosevic’s trial, where the main question was whether he would speak or not. As soon as he spoke we never heard of him again.
One cannot have sympathy for the dictator, nor for those who arrested him, nor for his scandals and the scandals of his regime and family, nor for his former coterie, nor for the current US coterie, nor for the coterie of current leaders, nor for the scandal mongers and their publishers. There is hardly any appetite left for another US media fanfare.
Ladies and Gentlemen, leave us alone.