the Disillusioned kid: For Whom The Bell Tolls
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Saturday, December 30, 2006

For Whom The Bell Tolls

So we can add Saddam to the list of bloodthirsty dictators who've finally shuffled off this mortal coil over the past year. While I'm not going to shed any tears for the mass-murdering fuck, I happen to think his execution was a mistake.

While many Iraqis seem happy to see the back of Saddam, this isn't the universal response. There were protests in Samarra, Ramadi and Adwar and gunmen on the streets of Tikrit, Saddam's hometown. The excution did nothing to halt the ongoing insurgency, with explosions occuring in Baghdad and Kufa within hours of the former dictator's death. Anyone who thinks the execution will reduce violence is living in cloud-cuckoo land. If anything, it's only going to make matters worse (bear in mind how bad things already are in Iraq).

I am steadfastly opposed to the death penalty, which I consider a brutal, inhumane form of punishment. Nevertheless, if there's anybody who deserves to hang it's surely Saddam. In fact the focus on his sentence has obscured the Iraqi government's increasing use of the death penalty following its reinstatement in 2004. Amnesty estimated on December 20 that 53 people had been executed since the start of the year (that's presumably now 54, if not more). Many of these trials have large question marks hanging over them. None have received even a fraction of the attention focused on Saddam's case.

My substantive argument against Saddam's execution, however, is a pragmatic one. While he was actually hung for his responsibility for a massacre in Dujail in 1982 which took place after a botched assasination attempt, Saddam went to the gallows in the middle of a further trial for his part in the Al-Anfal campaign. This brutal and infamous campaign saw the deaths thousands of Kurds (estimates vary from 50,000-182,000) and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more. Given the severity of these charges and their emotional potency, the haste with which Saddam was dispatched strikes me as strange. Why not continue the trial?

Facing up to past crimes is an important step in countries which have witnessed regime change following periods of extreme violence, whether as a result of civil war or dictatorship. Brushing these issues under the carpet will only leave wounds to fester which may explode at some point in the future. One can debate whether Saddam's trial - with its limited legitimacy and apparent preference for retribution over justice - is the best way to achieve this, but by killing Saddam the process will become that much more difficult. The romanticisation of the dead is hardly an unfamiliar process. (For an academic survey of different approaches to addressing past wrongs, check out this pdf.)

Executing Saddam has also got all those people who helped him off the hook. We've managed to avoid any embarrassing incidents with Donald Rumsfeld being called to testify on his visit to Saddam in 1983; or Douglas Hurd being quizzed on his trip to Iraq to sell missile systems in 1981. Our own culpability in his reign of terror, to say nothing of our subsequent campaign of state terrorism and siege warfare against the country from 1991 onwards can be quietly pushed to one side. The Bad Man is dead. What are you loooking at us for?

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