Saddam Hussein has had a long career for his line of work, from assassin, thought to be aided by the United States, to chief of the secret police, to right hand man of a dictator, to de facto dictator, to dicatator. From 1979 until 2003, he was President of the Republic of Iraq. For 12 of those years he had absolute power.
At the same time Nightline, without any irony, is broadcasting its investigation into American torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib – the infamous torture center where Saddam’s interior and defense ministry tortured and killed thousands. The opening scene shows one bottle of water handed out to dozens of prisoners in 90 degree heat. It is the middle of the night.
Friedrich Nietszche warned that if you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back. Tonight Iraq will execute a former despot, but the United States has instituted torture and fear, on the orders of the highest levels of the American government.
The execution of Saddam was a forgone conclusion, as Benjamin Franklin is said to have quipped, “Treason is a charge, invented by winners, as an excuse for hanging the losers.” With America locked in a post-911 hysteria, some one had to pay, and the Bush executive knew the despot with the deepest pockets. Bush promised to bring those who committed the attacks to justice. Even today, the mythology must begin with this event. It must be noted that Osama bin Laden is still at large.
Federalist society extremist John Yu wrote an authorization, which by his own admission, was an enabling act, which freed Bush from both domestic laws and virtually all treaties. On the day of the attack, watching the towers burn, the first words out of my mouth were “Reichstag Fire”. It was a realization which occurred independently to milliions of people. Many of them were in the Bush White House.
Saddam was the low hanging fruit. It is not that he does not deserve whatever fate assigned to him. He is probably more deserving than most who have faced execution. Many equally deserving people have not faced execution.
Saddam’s obvious guilt is a giant sheet that enshrouds the madness that has overcome America, and is only lately ebbing. But if the early tenative moves by the incoming Congress are any indication, America is still dazed, staring at the hand that we cut off and still failing to acknowledge that it was once attached to our own left arm. The White House, and its functionaries, to this day will talk only of Osama when they mean Saddam.
Saddam has sent more than a million people, probably closer to two million people, to die during his time in power. Pity and mercy are not qualities which need be wasted on him. However, how the law is enforced means as much as upon who. Criminals regularly murder other criminals, and few call it justice, and no one believes that such murders increase the total respect for law and order.
The torture center at Abu Ghraib is a perfect demonstration of why those who seek to use the law as an excuse for law breaking will become criminals in the end. Since the war in Iraq is, and always was, from its first moments, a tissue of lies, promoted by a media and political elite that had completely lost all reason and sense, beyond the low cunning of maintaining the extensive perks, privileges and powers of their position – it was inevitable that dubious and criminal means would be used to pursue it. Since everything depended on the appearance of success, any detail beyond the control of those in power was an imminent threat to their position.
This mindset, of the desire for unlimited control and total information, believing that somewhere, in someone’s head or hands could be the piece of information which would be vital, is common to corporate America. The internet age is replete with examples of control mania turning a project into a death march. When applied to war, it has turned what could have been a simple invasion and installation of a friendly regime into a death march for both the servicemen and women who are trapped there, and for the Iraqi people who have had it inflicted upon them.
It is also a mindset which has no room for understanding of the concept of justice itself. Executing Saddam does not provide justice. After all, few people in his chosen profession die in bed. And those that do often do so in miserable exile, hated by everyone around them. What produces justice is the sense of anyone in the same position that before the fruits of despotism can be enjoyed, the penalties must be paid. Saddam and his cohorts have lived longer and better than most people from whence they came, and would almost certainly have done as they did, even knowing the outcomes.
Instead, by pursuing an illegal war, and producing both a sham democracy and a sham justice, it has sent a clear message to others who harbor designs on ultimate power, that they must have enough to deter any American unilateral action. By failing to catch those who did attack America, and failing to convict many who are as bad as Saddam, or at least beyond any doubt worhty of execution – it has sent a message that justice is not the question, merely realpolitick in the sense of the politics of kings.
By the time you read this, the former President of Iraq may well have gone to the gallows. But while the end is deserved, the means undercut the message that was intended. Saddam is not meeting an inevitable fate in a nation which has been stabilized, and which has passed his form of authoritarian government by, but in a country coming apart at the seems, which has begun to yearn for a government of the same style, only with a less insane man at its head.
By requiring the same means to hold power as Saddam, by creating an enabling act which gave Bush dictatorial powers and created a legal theory that law and treaty did not bind him or his executive in the pursuit of a war which was defined by his sole discretion and which ended at his fiat, the United States has already hung legitimacy, by the neck, until dead.
It was Machiavelli who warned that Rome’s habit of appointing dictators in time of war was the root of the fall of its Republic, and the loss of its liberties. It is a warning we should heed now, and with all due haste overturn the powers illegitimately gained and unwisely granted to an executive barely capable of the office in ordinary times.
Or the downward spiral of America’s standing in the world will continue. The standing upon which so much of our political and economic establishment rests.