Saddam Hussein is history, his choking grip on Iraqi society broken by a noose. His merciless crimes, however, live on in photographs, grainy videos and, not least, in the memories of those who suffered his rule.
If the former dictator had lived and met his end in one of the great civilizations of Mesopotamia he tried to emulate Saddam fancied himself the successor to Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar his adversaries might also have extirpated him from history. The ancients didn't only destroy the physical presence of reviled leaders, scattering their bodies to the four winds. They also erased all records of the lives and deeds of the vanquished. They renamed cities. They chiseled names off monuments. They put blood relatives to the sword.
Plenty of people around the world today would be happy to emulate antiquity, to wipe the history books clean of Saddam. In life, he was variously regarded as a champion of pan-Arabism, a defender of Islam, a proxy U.S. ally in a troubled region and a lone antagonist against American hegemony.
In death, his three decades of absolute rule in Iraq and the atrocities he committed are, now, embarrassments. Without the Baathist propaganda machine churning out encomiums and Saddam enforcing the glorification of his own greatness, the truth about the modern-day Hammurabi is harder to ignore.
Those who celebrated Saddam as the standard bearer of Arab pride and unity would like to conceal the fact that his most intimate victims were fellow Arabs hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens, then tens of thousands of Kuwaitis. A man regarded as an Arab hero for championing the extremist cause against Israel was responsible in 24 years for Arab death on a scale that dwarfs the casualties of all the Arab-Israeli conflicts combined.
Those who bizarrely came to view Saddam as a defender of Islam would like to obscure his homicidal secularism and the detail that his victims well more than a million in all were overwhelmingly Muslim. Islamists who condemn the U.S.-led war on terror as a purported war on Islam have a hard time explaining Saddam's very real wars against Iraqi and Iranian Shiites and Sunni Kurds.
Foreign policy realists in the United States did more than merely accept Saddam as the enemy of our Iranian enemy. A succession of American leaders, beginning with the Carter administration, aligned U.S. interests with Baathist interests, supplying money, weapons, intelligence and training despite full knowledge of Saddam's psychopathic repression, mass murder and use of chemical weapons.
An international cadre of politicians, businessmen and United Nations employees enriched themselves by skimming money off a U.N. program that was supposed to provide food and medicine to the Iraqi people.
So many people would like to see history buried along with Saddam. Dr. Najmaldin Karim is not one of them
In 1972, Karim abandoned his medical career in northern Iraq to join the Kurdish resistance. Today he is an American neurosurgeon and the president of the Washington Kurdish Institute. While he escaped Saddam's murderous reign, members of his family did not.
Writing recently in the New York Times, he called Saddam's execution an act of justice. But, he wrote, the execution came both too late and too early:
"Too late, because had Saddam Hussein been removed from the scene many years ago, many lives would have been saved.
"Killing Saddam now, however, for ordering the massacre at Dujail in 1982, means that he will not face justice for his greatest crimes: the so-called Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the late 1980s, the genocidal assault on the Marsh Arabs in the 1990s, and the slaughtering of the Shiite Arabs and Kurds who rose up against him, with American encouragement, in 1991."
Three thousand years ago, the death of a megalomaniac like Saddam would have permitted his successors to wipe clean the historical slate. Perhaps that's why history is filled with so many megalomaniacs.
Remembering Saddam's atrocities and holding to account the accomplices and apologists who helped him gain and retain power is the best way to prevent history from repeating. Which is why his regime's trial should go on, even though Saddam is dead.