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Executioners’ Tiff
Schlock and Flaws of Saddam’s Hanging

Will hack for food

In a war of pretenses, duplicity has no bounds. So it is with the official American reaction to Saddam’s assassination. The Bush administration and the military let it be known that they were somewhat incensed at the rapidity and manner of the execution, which did have about it the feel of a cobbled-together mob hit with a few Porky’s-like invectives thrown in for the hometown fans—Iraq’s Shiite militias, whose bloodlust was mildly quenched, for a day or so, by the hanging. The commentariat, too, even those who have been fans to Bush’s war and who, lingeringly, find fresh ways to justify the bloodletting in Iraq’s streets, seem put off that the hanging wasn’t carried out the way Biff and Andy and Buzz and Hank (the retired military guys down at the country club) would have handled it—with a bit of panache and Rule Britannia-solemnity. But what does the solemnity serve other than to mask the barbarism of the act behind the ritual? How can there be any expectation of propriety regarding an act that sums up depravity worse than murder? (The murderer, you can argue at the outside, has motive, however unjust, and if no motive, then at least he has the excuse of admitting depravity by committing murder. What excuse has the State, other than to put on a public display of revenge?)

In the sense that a hanging is depravity incarnate, and that the brief history of the Iraq war has been a centipede of shams, contortions and distortions, Saddam’s executioners, for all their taunts and sophomoric stupidity, proved to be the most honest act in the whole charade—the least hypocritical, the most reflective, in their actions and their words, of what Iraq’s Shiites and a good deal of the rest of the world wanted to see happen to Saddam. They did it brutally, without the pretense of frills and ceremony. They did it the way they’ve been doing their killings day in and day out in Iraq. Saddam was no different.

The skittish reaction from the administration and the commentariat is the embarrassment—not because the hanging shouldn’t be condemned. It should, as every execution should. But because those are the same warmongers who reveled in the brutality of the Iraq war, who have had nothing to say about every day’s mass of tortures and executions by Shiites and Sunnis except that they want to “get the job done,” and who, in their Texan or Kansan or Floridian lairds, in their evenings of watching Fox and voting with their triggers, are like cheerleaders to retribution.

Alone but for Japan’s occasional hangings, the United States is modernity’s last remaining defender peddler of capital punishment—not in a regretful or even solemn kind of way, but enough for politicians to campaign on and speak proudly of, as if murdering felons was a political version of quail hunting. This place has no standing for judging how Iraqis went about assassinating their former president, least of all when the hanging was America’s pre-ordained outcome, and the only moment Saddam spent outside of official American custody since being scrounged out of his spider-hole (let’s not for a moment imagine that even the scene at the hanging wasn’t looked over by American handlers.)

A necessary digression on the question of capital punishment: To call it reprehensible invites ridicule for the redundancy of it. It’s like having to substantiate the idea that torture is reprehensible, or that murder is undesirable, or that war is hell. Of course capital punishment is reprehensible in a self-evident way, and equally so for what it says about the executioner as for what it may say—because we’re never always sure, are we—about the executed (present executionee excluded, obviously). The fact that the pros and cons of capital punishment are still debated in the twenty-first century, in the United States of all places, while most states carry out executions like it was the eighteenth century, speaks to the latent (and not so latent), evangelically inspired brutality at the core of the American notion of justice, a notion with a disquieting echo in Islamic “justice” of the Wahhabite or merely fanatical kind. When a Supreme Court justice like Antonin Scalia not only supports the death penalty but lobbies for it and belittles its opponents as contrarians of God’s law, the nature of the debate is no longer ethical or legal but theological, in the same sense that grand inquisitors thought themselves purveyors and protectors of a theology. A theology that happens to be attractive to those who see nothing wrong with the death penalty. Scalia simplifies it this way:

Besides being less likely to regard death as an utterly cataclysmic punishment, the Christian is also more likely to regard punishment in general as deserved. The doctrine of free will—the ability of man to resist temptations to evil, which God will not permit beyond man’s capacity to resist—is central to the Christian doctrine of salvation and damnation, heaven and hell. The post–Freudian secularist, on the other hand, is more inclined to think that people are what their history and circumstances have made them, and there is little sense in assigning blame.

I added the emphasis for that kicker for what it says about Scalia’s tactically dishonest tricks of the pen. He states that bit about post-Freudian secularism with self-evident certainty, but against history’s (and secularist societies’) evidence: Secular justice never has trouble assigning blame—as long as it doesn’t draw its legitimacy from the metaphysical (or divine right, in Scalia’s case). That’s when justice gives way to doctrine, and usually, injustice. From its very beginnings, there’s been nothing secular about the Iraq war, not in the way President Bush wanted it executed, and not in the way it’s cascaded out of control, in Iraqis’ hands.

Saddam’s hanging showed the Iraq war for what it is: Not a war for justice, democracy, fairness and all those other cute words for the gullible, but a war for the vengeful and the fanatic. A war between Arabs who, since deep into the early days of the twentieth century, have seen Western invaders and illusionists as so much time-wasting interference, and the puppets they installed or enabled or financed and cajoled (Saddam among them) as mere extensions of the interference. Something to be exterminated, when the time comes. The time, in Iraq as in Iran in 1978, is now. I’m not saying this approvingly but only as, say, a passing meteor might have reflected on the French Terror in 1794. Nothing the meteor, or anyone else, could have done about it (short of obliterating the scene).

The Americans have been outclassed all along by the degree of violence they’ve encountered. Now they’re being outclassed in brutality. Iraqis don’t have the technological means to lay waste to their victims (no lethal injections, no shock and awe for these bunches). But they make up in immediate and irreparable violence what they can’t provide, as the American military so ably has for almost four years, in annihilating and humiliating efficiency. That’s what the invasion has let loose, what the American military and Bush’s “new strategy” for Iraq, whatever it will be once he reveals it in the next few days, cannot possibly restore to any kind of order. That will be up to Iraqis. The hanging of Saddam was not an end. It wasn’t that reviling word westerners love to use, closure. It was a display of method and power and intention. Of course the commentariat and the administration are skittish: in the execution, they saw their Frankenstein in action, and out of their control.
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