Happy New Year. It seems we’ve rung in the new by hanging Bush’s bete noire. Ding-dong, Saddam is dead. New Year coincided with an important Muslim holiday as well, Eid Al-Adha, celebrating the end of the hajj, in the last month of the Islamic calendar:
The Festival of the Sacrifice commemorates the God’s gift of the ram in place of the biblical patriarch Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) son Isma’il (Ishmael). (In Judaism and Christianity, the child in this story is Ishmael’s brother Isaac.) During the festival, families that can afford to do so sacrifice an animal such as a sheep, goat, camel, or cow, and then divide the meat among themselves, the poor, and friends and neighbours.
I suppose you could look on Saddam’s execution as a sacrifice of sorts, but for what, and to whom?
Morbid curiousity led me to the cell-phone video of the execution. I watched up to the point of the hanging, and stopped. It is a profoundly depressing piece of history. A number of commentators have remarked on its similarity to the Al Qaeda beheading videos, and I would have to agree.
Saddam’s execution takes place in a small, dark cell, cement walls, dimly lit; according to one account I heard, the floors are still stained in places by the blood of those who had died before him, by his orders. The guards and executioners wear ski masks and civilian clothes. At the end, they taunt Hussein. There are shouts of “Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada!” in support of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shi’ite cleric and militia leader.
God knows how many times this video has been seen by now. Enough to inflame the Sunni Arab world, furious at the shabby, degrading way a Sunni former head of state was dispatched. Enough to demonstrate the degree to which Shi’ite militias have infiltrated the government of “New Iraq” – or are the government, more accurately.
Enough to show the proportion of justice to revenge.
There’s been a considerable amount of debate on the culpability of American authorities in this execution. Our government claims to have had nothing to do with the decision. I’ve heard credible accounts that American officials were suprised by the haste of the whole process, the speed with which the execution was conducted. And on the one hand, it’s hard to understand why American authorities would encourage an action certain to provoke more sectarian violence. On the other, the cynical part of me wonders if more violence was needed to justify the “surge” in American troops the Bush Administration so very much wants. As well, one should never underestimate the extent to which the Bush Administration can utterly fuck things up. And the conspiratorial aspect of my nature wonders about the secrets Saddam takes with him. After all, he was our man in the Iraq/Iran War before he was our Hitler d’jour.
In the end, I’m not sure it matters. The perception will be that America was behind Saddam’s execution, and perceptions are as potent a fuel as realities, it seems.
Yeah, he was a brutal dictator; he murdered thousands of people, and I’m not blind to the poetic justice of his being put down like a dog in the same execution chamber where he’d had people slaughtered in his name. But this was not the kind of justice I want done in mine. Blood spilled over blood, staining the hands of us all.
If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgement here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return,
To plague the inventor; this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice
To our own lips.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.