Of all the mistakes that the Bush administration has committed in
Iraq, none is as gratuitous and self-inflicted as the bungling of
the trial of Saddam Hussein.
Although Hussein deserves to be shot like a dog or, same
thing, like the Ceausescus we nonetheless decided to give him
a trial. First, to demonstrate the moral superiority of the new Iraq
as it struggles to live by the rule of law. Second, and even more
important, to bear witness.
War crimes trials are, above all and always, for educational
purposes. This one was for the world to see and experience and
recoil from the catalogue of Hussein's crimes, and to demonstrate
the justice of a war that stripped this man and his gang of their
monstrous and murderous power.
It has not worked out that way. Instead of Hussein's crimes being on
trial, he has succeeded in putting the new regime on trial. The lead
story of every court session has been his demeanor, his defiance,
his imperiousness. The evidence brought against him by his hapless
victims testimony mangled in translation and electronic voice
alteration made the back pages at best.
"This has become a platform for Saddam to show himself as a caged
lion when really he was a mouse in a hole," said Vice President
Ghazi Yawar. "I don't know who is the genius who is producing this
farce. It's a political process. It's a comedy show."
There hasn't been such judicial incompetence since Judge Ito and the
O.J. trial. We can excuse the Iraqis, who are new to all this and
justifiably terrified of retribution. But there is no excusing the
Bush administration, which had Hussein in custody for two years and
had even longer to think about putting on a trial that would not
become a star turn for a defeated enemy.
Why have we given him control of the stage? We all remember the
picture of him pulled out of his spider hole. That should be the
Saddam Hussein we put on trial. Instead, with every appearance, he
dresses more regally, emerging from cowering captive to ordinary
prisoner to dictator on temporary leave. Now he carries on as
legitimate and imperious head of state. He plays the benign father
of his country, calling the judge "son," then threatens the judge's
life. Hussein shouts, defies, brandishes a Koran. The judge keeps
telling him he's out of order. He disobeys with impunity, the guards
not daring to intervene.
What kind of message does that send to Iraqis who have been
endlessly told that Hussein and his regime were finished? "The
performance has heartened his followers," writes The Post's Doug
Struck from Baghdad. "In Tikrit . . . a large crowd of demonstrators
chanted their loyalty on Tuesday. Several marchers said they were
emboldened by his courtroom bravado."
This is absurd. If anything, Hussein should be brought in wearing
prison garb, perhaps in shackles, just for effect. And why was he
given control of the script? He shouts, interrupts and does his
Mussolini histrionics unmolested. Instead of the press being behind
a glass wall, it is Hussein who should be. Better still, placed in a
glass booth, like Eichmann, like some isolated specimen of deranged
humanity, symbolically and physically cut off from the world of
normal human values.
Instead, he struts. And we are witness to a political test of wills
between the new Iraq represented by an as-yet incompetent judicial
system and the would-be tyrant-for-life defiantly raising once again
the banner of Baathism, on a worldwide stage afforded him by
Until now the Baathists who constitute the bulk of this Sunni
insurgency had no symbolic presence, no political platform, no
visible leadership. We have now given that to them, gratis.
Both President Bush and his opponents in Congress are incessantly
talking about "benchmarks" to guide any U.S. withdrawals from Iraq.
But there is one benchmark that is always left unspoken: We cannot
leave until Saddam Hussein is dead, executed for his crimes. No one
will say it, but everyone knows it. As long as he is alive and
well-dressed, every Iraqi will have to wonder what will happen to
him and his family if Hussein returns. Only Hussein's death will
assure them that he will not return.
Which is why the lateness of this trial is such a tragedy. And why
its bungling is such a danger. Our only hope, as always with
Hussein, is that he destroys himself with his arrogance and
stupidity. He has stupidly walked out of his own trial. This is our
opportunity. He should not be allowed back, certainly not without a
glass booth. Only Saddam Hussein can save us from our own
incompetence. We should let him.
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