Punishment for the regime

Posted: Aug 01, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- When the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown in 1958, Prime Minister Nuri al-Said, fleeing disguised as a woman, was caught, castrated and hacked to pieces by a crowd. When the strongman who took power, Abdul Karim Kassem, was overthrown five years later, he was shot and his body displayed on television. When Najibullah, deposed dictator of Afghanistan, was killed by the Taliban in 1996, he too was castrated, shot and hanged, still alive, from a lamppost.

Given the neighborhood, the complaint about the offense to local sensitivities by the American treatment of the bodies of Uday and Qusay is hard to fathom. Not that the public display of overthrown tyrants is by any means an exclusively Muslim custom. Think back only to 1989, when the Ceausescus' summary execution was videotaped and their bodies shown on Romanian TV, or, most famously, to Mussolini being strung upside down by the partisans.

These shows of public fury are more than just catharsis. They are a form of preventive politics. You want to show that the king is not only dead, but humiliated, desecrated, so as to strip him posthumously of the awe and aura he possessed in life.

Which is why the display of the dead Hussein brothers was so necessary. Consider the circumstances under which the Baath regime was overthrown. For 30 years, it ruled by torture and fear. Then all of a sudden, it disappeared. It was not decimated. It vanished, literally, into the night.

In that part of the world, people are used to seeing their deposed leaders in chains, or worse. In Iraq, however, more than two-thirds of the deck of cards have been captured, but entirely antiseptically. Not one has been shown in public or on television.

There is an announcement: The six of spades has been arrested. But no picture. No proof. Nothing tangible.

It is rather odd that Martha Stewart does a perp walk for trading ImClone, but Tariq Aziz, complicit in the murder and torture of tens of thousands, does not. The reason is simple. The Baathist thugs are war prisoners, and international law does not permit their display.

But there's a loophole. You are not allowed to parade a prisoner on television, but there is nothing in the Geneva Conventions about displaying dead bodies. Hence the display of Uday and Qusay. They were not only the most important torturers. They were the deadest.

That deadness offended the sensibilities of a few, most characteristically, the supercilious British reporter who confronted Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. commander in Baghdad (who announced the killing of Uday and Qusay), with the charge that the United States should have taken them alive, not just to produce more information but to provide war crimes trials. Why did you not just wait them out, he asked?

The question was as astounding for its stupidity as for its audacity. The obvious answer is that waiting would have opened the unacceptable possibility of escape. One might add: Imagine what would have happened had a siege been declared, and days spent waiting for the food and ammunition inside the house to run out. The world media descending on the scene would have made Camp O.J. look like a Cub Scout barbecue. Mediators representing everyone from Putin to the pope would have fallen over each other to negotiate the terms of surrender.

But the most important reason remained unstated: We had no wish to take Uday and Qusay alive. We did the correct thing in giving them one chance to surrender. But no more. The moment we captured them we would have been responsible for their care and feeding forever. They were in their 30s. It would have meant that for the next 50 years the Hussein dynasty would have been kept alive -- by us.

For half a century, Iraqis would justly live in fear of a restoration. It was not for nothing that Richard III had his nephews killed in the Tower of London. We don't do that today. In fact, we leave unmolested Saddam's other offspring -- three daughters and a son that had no role in the regime. But when confronted with Saddam's designated heirs, world-class murderers who refused to surrender, the idea of waiting them out so that we could forever be custodians of their restoration is simply insane.

Which suggests a plan for when we finally find Saddam. We give him, oh, 30 seconds to contemplate his surrender -- after all, he has had about five months to mull it over -- and then we kill the monster. And the ghosts that still surround him.