Politics & Policy

The Reckoning of the Dead

Saddam Hussein's coming end.

The Iraqi high tribunal’s sentencing of Saddam Hussein and two of his henchmen to hang for the massacre in Dujail has significant implications for Iraq, the Middle East, and beyond. But in a more immediate sense, the innocent victims of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime merit our attention, for this verdict brings these forgotten souls one step closer to the ultimate justice they await from beyond the grave — and that Saddam Hussein denied to them in life and in death. The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin is supposed to have said that “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” This rationalization for mass murder is a lie. The more than 100,000 Iraqis that Hussein butchered do not represent a cold numerical figure, but countless individual tragedies perpetrated at the behest of a grotesque criminal mind. Their families, who mourn for them, may now find some solace. The execution of Saddam Hussein will deliver justice in its full measure.

In Iraq, the verdict will have other benefits. It will help to consolidate the rule of law, which is essential to rebuilding civil society. It is a benchmark for the country’s new legal system. It will puncture one of the myths fueling the Sunni insurgency, namely, the impending return of Saddam Hussein. His execution will bury this myth once and for all. He will then not be transformed into a martyr, as apologists for terror predict, but, like Benito Mussolini, into a figure of disdain, derision and disgust.

The sentence vindicates the Coalition’s decision to depose the Hussein regime. It validates President Bush’s assertion, following September 11, 2001, that terrorists and the state leaders who sponsor them will be brought to justice. As such, it marks a victory in the Global War on Terrorism. Internationally, it sends the stark warning to dictators across the globe that, given the right circumstances, they, too, may be held accountable for their actions by the very same people they once oppressed.

In historical terms, the verdict recalls the Nuremberg trials, when numerous high-ranking Nazis were sentenced to death for crimes against humanity. An essay posted on the Wall Street Journal’s website has drawn eerie similarities between Hussein’s destruction of Dujail and the Nazi’s annihilation of the village of Lidice, Czechoslovakia in 1942 in retaliation for the assassination of S.S. chief Reinhard Heydrich in Prague. Years from now people will regard the Hussein verdict as a historic milestone on the road to recovery in the Middle East.

For the moment, let us pause again to recall the victims of Saddam Hussein. His next trial will focus on the Anfal campaign against the Kurds, including the chemical attack on the small town of Halabja on March 16, 1988. The grisly fate of those villagers, including countless children, has haunted the imagination of the civilized world ever since, including the Iraqi poet Bulland al-Haydari. The closing lines of his poem, “So That We Do Not Forget,” written in the wake of that atrocity, foretell Sunday’s sentence, and discern, in its inherent justice, a glimmer of hope for his homeland:

Not a narcissus dreaming of blooming in the flower bed

The villains didn’t leave

Only the dead, the ashes of the dead, and the blackness of smoke.

But my future

And the reckoning of the dead

And the blood of the slain will chase the face of Satan

From one mirror to another

From a thousand ages to a thousand ages.

The rope will coil around the neck of the hangman

Kurdistan will curse your past

Baghdad will disavow your vice

And to the sweet land will return all the beds

of narcissus and flowers

And my son will be reborn in all the children.

— Joseph Morrison Skelly, a college professor in New York City, is an academic fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.