The difference that lies between justice and revenge is slight. In the case of execution, it is almost nonexistent. When Saddam Hussein was executed last week, that difference was obliterated.
The room looked to be cold. Maybe that was a visceral reaction to the event about to be recorded by the cellphone camera. The lighting was poor. At least one written account of the execution placed a foul smell in the room as well.
There stood the dictator on his last dais, noose in a grim hug about his throat. He was bound, but that’s to be expected. He looked ahead. The trapdoor swung open and he dropped to his death. The sentence was carried out. Saddam Hussein was executed for his crimes. But before, while he stood, he was taunted by his executioners. Before he died, there was one last confrontation, one last instance for Saddam to know just who it was who was killing him. Before he swung, he had to know his death would be an act of revenge, justice being second to the passion play of civil war.
“Moqtada! Moqtada! Moqtada!” cried one of his guards. Then his neck was snapped.
The clandestine video of Saddam Hussein’s execution is compelling. It presents a completely opposite picture of the moments before his execution from the official video released by the Iraqi government. The government version presents the execution as an earnest, solemn event. The former dictator is confronted by silence as he is led to his death. The message is clear: Saddam Hussein is being punished by the passionless, anesthetic hand of justice. He is being put to death as the result of due process, as an operation of the law.
But the grainy cellphone footage twists the reality the Iraqi government tried to create. It shows little more than a revenge killing. The execution resembled more the state terror that was typical under Saddam than the justice of a nation trying to move beyond both its past and its brutal present. Maybe nothing more was to be expected. After all, despite the lack of cleanliness in Saddam Hussein’s execution, is silence on the killing floor really necessary for civilized men to avoid feelings of squeamishness as they carry out or witness state-sanctioned murder? Does taunting the condemned move execution from the realm of acceptable punishments into the realm of the cruel and unusual? Absolutely not. The final result is the same. As far as we know, Saddam suffered no other punishments before his hanging than the taunts of his guards. He did not appear to have been beaten or tortured. He was led from a cell to his death, quickly.
It’s not concern for Saddam’s feelings before his death that makes the atmosphere in the execution chamber repulsive. What we can see in the cellphone footage is yet another symptom of a society that is ripping itself apart. It was woefully unprepared to try Saddam for his crimes, and it has proven equally unprepared to carry out his punishment. Everything in Iraq, from the sectarian divisions, to the government, to the justice system that executed Saddam, looks to be driven by the passions of the inflamed. This is no environment in which to be carrying out capital sentences.
The execution of Saddam contains a simple lesson. The crimes of a head of state and those who carry out his orders defy the ability of the survivors to fairly administer justice. Where the international community is responsible for deposing a regime or ending a genocide, there also lies its responsibility to sort through the mess and hold men like Saddam to account.
It was a mistake to allow the Iraqis to try Saddam Hussein. This should have been obvious. The aggrieved are less interested in justice than in swiftness. They have little inclination to move on. The injustices wrought by war criminals and despots are traumatic to the point they dominate the psyches of survivors. How can we demand that those thus victimized by the crimes of men like Saddam be in charge of their punishment? Imagine the descent into circus acrobatics the Nuremberg trials would have become had they been presided over by surviving relatives of concentration camp victims, instead of the dispassionate hand of deliberate international justice. In truth, we can see the results of such a miscarriage in Iraq.
We saw in Saddam’s execution a more polished equivalent to the sectarian killings that are destroying Iraq as this is being written. There was no pretense, nor was there any fact in Saddam being brought to justice. This isn’t disturbing because a man like him deserved better, maybe he didn’t, but it is another indication of how far Iraq has to go before it can rejoin the brotherhood of civilization.