Nothing to Celebrate in Saddam's Hanging

This act makes neither America nor Iraq look good.

From the archives:

"Tales of the Tyrant" (May 2002)
Mark Bowden painted an intimate portrait of Saddam's daily life in the years before he was deposed.

A week ago I was with my family in Hanoi, seeing (among other sites) the structure that the French called Maison Centrale, the Vietnamese called Hoa Lo Prison, and the American POW's like John McCain called the "Hanoi Hilton." Like most prisons it is a grim, intimidating building. Much of it has been demolished to make way for a modern high-rise-and-condo complex, but one wing has been preserved as a museum.

Within the museum are countless reminders of, mainly, the French colonialists' cruelty to their subject race, the Vietnamese. One wall has plaques with the names of hundreds of Vietnamese imprisoned and tortured there. Several other walls have photos of Vietnamese captives who died. There is a dark "interrogation room," frightening even to look into, plus specimens of the wires, canes, and electric generators used on captives within that room. There is also a chilling collection of artifacts from the American POWs, including the flight suit McCain was wearing when he was shot down. (But, to put it mildly, the hardships of the Americans are not the museum's dominant theme. The most extensive description of their situation is a ridiculous Soviet Life-style agitprop montage of the way they passed the time by teaching each other new crafts and singing soulfully about their home towns.)

And, impossible to take your eyes off, is the prison's guillotine, flanked by photos of Vietnamese insurgents' heads in baskets.

Any sentient American finds much to reflect upon in the Maison Centrale, including how torturers generally look in retrospect, no matter how "justified" their cause. In the wake of Saddam Hussein's execution, I find myself reflecting on that guillotine.

Nothing about their use of the guillotine in the colonies makes the French look good in retrospect. I believe that nothing about the latest use of the gallows in Baghdad will make America—or Iraq—look good.

Also see:
James Fallows's Web site, with regularly updated dispatches, and information about his writings and appearances.

I should disclose that at this stage of life I am flatly against capital punishment, even for the worst of humanity, which I consider the newly hanged Saddam Hussein to have been. I did not always feel this way—in my 20s and early 30s, I listened respectfully to arguments about "deterrence" and the importance of society's being able to administer the gravest of penalties for the gravest of offenses. I'm in my 50s now, and I think: this is barbaric. Life is too precious, the likelihood of error is too high, and the moral stain of state-orchestrated killing is too serious, to allow a decent society to feel good about killing people deliberately. Deadly force as necessary in military or police campaigns, yes: I have no complaint about the way Saddam Hussein's two sons met their end. But calmly administered death, via the guillotine or the noose, is something else.

(For this reason, I consider the worst action in Bill Clinton's public life to be his approval of the execution of Ricky Ray Rector in Arkansas early in 1992. As recounted in Marshall Frady's famous New Yorker article, Rector was so retarded that he asked that the dessert from his pre-execution last meal be saved "for later." Although this can never be proved, as a political matter it seems obvious that Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, felt he could not afford to intervene and pardon Rector—thereby setting himself up for an election year's worth of grief as just another liberal softie. Of course, condemning Clinton in this way assumes he should be held to a different standard from George W. Bush, on whose watch in Texas roughly 150 convicts were executed, including some in circumstances that, as Alan Berlow pointed out in The Atlantic, were fully as lamentable as Rector's.)

But set that aside: Iraq, like most of the United States, has the death penalty, and Saddam had been condemned. Indeed, the effort to place him on trial and marshall evidence of his cruelty will in the long run be seen as one of the more honorable aspects of the generally shameful occupation era in Iraq. The means of his execution is what will haunt us.

The unbelievable rush. The vengeful bantering by guards on the gallows stand, which undermined in every conceivable way the idea that the neutral hand of Justice was being applied. Even the hideous detail of the executioners in black ski masks—which (as my friend Eric Redman has pointed out) make the execution videos visually identical to the countless other videos of terrorist "executioners" wearing the same black masks. To be clear: there is a huge difference between a terrorist snuff video and the hanging of a tyrant. But the look is the same. Careful accounts of Saddam's trial have made it clear that the United States was frustrated by some of its aspects, and unable to control much of the rest. That doesn't matter. Throughout the world it is taken for granted that both trial and punishment were American efforts, yet more decisions on which we will be judged.

And what were President Bush's thoughts on this event? If his comments had come immediately after Saddam had been indicted, or convicted, or sentenced, they would be reasonable. But Bush said what he did immediately after Saddam was hanged. What he said was this:

Bringing Saddam Hussein to justice will not end the violence in Iraq, but it is an important milestone on Iraq's course to becoming a democracy that can govern, sustain, and defend itself, and be an ally in the War on Terror. We are reminded today of how far the Iraqi people have come since the end of Saddam Hussein's rule.

Milestone? I suspect only in the grimmest sense. Saddam Hussein was an evil tyrant, without whom Iraq and the world are better off. But we are reminded today of many things other than "how far the Iraqi people have come."