Death on a scaffold is the fitting ending for Saddam Hussein. His was a carefully conceived career of mass murder and terror, and an Iraqi court, with Iraqi judges and Iraqi lawyers, has sat in judgment on it. True, they passed sentence on only a small portion of his crimes, and much of the evidence was still to be heard of the genocide he ordered for the Shiites and the Kurds. However, legalistic quibbles or conscientious objections are particularly misplaced. Iraq has long been a failed state, its true condition concealed by a run of dictators, each more brutal than the last.
Nothing can be said for Saddam except that he knew no better than the rule of the gun under which he had always lived. He was to make the most of the opportunities for crime open in the circumstances to anyone of vicious character like him. He was barely adult when revolutionary nationalists staged a coup, and killed virtually all the members of the family hitherto ruling Iraq. At that same time, Saddam declared himself a revolutionary nationalist, but in reality he too was a glorified hit man like the others. In due course, purposefully, he murdered his way to absolute power. As he went to his death, he may have recalled the 22 colleagues and rivals whom he accused of conspiracy with “U.S. imperialism” and whose hanging he one day personally supervised.
Arab despotism is a fearsome phenomenon, renewing itself from within each and every time yet another glorified hit man sets out on his bloody career. In the spirit of pure self-aggrandizement, Saddam invaded Iran and Kuwait, fired missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia, decimated his own population and in the process resorted to poison gas, manipulated the great powers, and made a special mockery of the United Nations. And perhaps none of that matched in vileness the way that he deceived the husbands of two daughters of his into returning from exile under safe conduct, only to send a squad of gunmen under his son Uday to kill these fathers of his own grandchildren.
With such brutes, entreaty, diplomacy, conferences are exercises in self-deception. Regime change imposed by superior force was the only realistic way to ensure Saddam’s fall. This is what occurred in March 2003, and it is a historic marker. The collapse of his dictatorship has created a social and political void, and a variety of hit men, as usual, are trying to make careers out of it. The only way to prevent their doing so is to introduce the rule of law and impose enough security that it has a chance to take. Saddam’s trial, for all its flaws, was an exercise in the rule of law. Justice is never perfect, especially when carrying an element of retribution. Much more important, though, this case is exemplary. Saddam’s trial and execution could yet be the building block of a future with hope in it for an Iraqi society and state at last free from his tyranny.