Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Justice for a Tyrant

The debate over Iraq has become so poisonous that even the weekend death sentence for Saddam Hussein seems to have become morally controversial. So it's worth recalling that what happened early Saturday morning in Baghdad is that rare event -- justice for a tyrant after a fair and open trial.

Most of the world's dictator-killers escape such a reckoning. Stalin and Mao died in their own beds. Hitler escaped the hangman by committing suicide, while Nicolae Ceausescu was shot by a vengeful mob after a perfunctory trial. Idi Amin and Pol Pot were ousted from power but lived into old age without punishment. Slobodan Milosevic made it to trial but died before a verdict could be rendered. Others -- Castro, Kim Jong Il -- live on in power, terrorizing their countrymen to this day.

Saddam may not have been history's worst murderer, but he was an accomplished one. He began as a Baath Party assassin, rose after a 1968 coup to become Iraq's feared vice president and intelligence chief, and consolidated his power in 1979 with a videotaped purge of his enemies, nearly 500 of whom were soon dead.

There followed the invasion of Iran, the gassing of the Kurds, the looting of Kuwait, more slaughter of Kurds and Shiites, an attempt on the life of a former U.S. President, and support for international terrorism. The precise number of Saddam's victims is impossible to know. But add the Iraqi estimate of 400,000 bodies found in mass graves to the casualties during his wars with Iran, Kuwait and the U.S.-led coalition, and his death total may equal two million.

There would surely have been more. Never mind that no stockpiles of chemical weapons were found in Iraq after 2003. Saddam was the only living national leader to have ordered the use of chemical weapons -- twice. Were he still in power today, does anyone doubt he would be racing with Iran to obtain a nuclear bomb?

Saddam's trial had its critics, just as Nuremberg did in its time. But the dictator received far more due process than his own victims ever did. He was able to play to the cameras of al Jazeera, giving the illusion to his former allies in the insurgency that he might return. He could denounce his Iraqi judges as American stooges, though the U.S. studiously left his fate to Iraqis and even protected Saddam in captivity from vengeful ill-treatment. What the dictator could not do is gainsay the evidence of his guilt, which ran to thousands of exhibits and pages of testimony and would have included hundreds of witnesses had the other cases against him gone forward.

His hanging will not end the violence in Iraq, but it is important for that country's future nonetheless. It will reassure majority Shiites that Saddam's day is finally past, making it easier for the moderates among them to compromise with Sunnis on the shape of their government. The anti-Saddam taunts of a few of his executioners were tasteless, but they also show the catharsis his death represents.

Perhaps the more important effect will be on the psychology of Iraq's Sunnis. Many of them actually did believe that Saddam might return to power, just as Saddam told them he would in his televised trial proceedings. And they continued to believe that Saddam could punish "traitors," like a mafia don, from his jail cell. As Shiite leader Ayad Jamal al-Deen remarked, "The death of this man will help to release many Baathists from Saddam's mafia."

The world will have to endure future tyrants, but Saddam's hanging will have done some larger good if it gives even one of them pause to think he might suffer the same justice. Too often, faced with murderous dictators, the world's moralists demand that America "do something" (Darfur, Bosnia) only to shrink from the reality of what that requires. In Iraq, President Bush did something. The 3,000 Americans who have given their lives in that noble mission have done so in a just cause that rid the world of a man who might have killed hundreds of thousands more.

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