Trial and tribalism

Posted: Oct 21, 2005 12:05 AM

A Sunni grandmother watched the first day of Saddam Hussein's trial on television and scoffed that he should be charged at all. "I felt sorry," she told The Washington Post, "I almost cried. Every country in the world has terrorism. All the presidents in this region torture their people. Why, of all the countries, do they come after us?"

 That is the face of tribalism -- pride in one's own trumps every other consideration -- most definitely including morality, compassion and a love of justice. Saddam is a Sunni Arab who committed the most brutal crimes against the Shiite majority and the Kurdish minority in Iraq. Estimates of the number he murdered range from 300,000 to over 1 million if those who died in his aggressive wars against Iran and Kuwait are included.

 But in the tribal world of the Middle East, being a mass murderer, torturer, liar and supporter of terrorists does not guarantee a bad reputation. It depends whom you ask.

 As his trial opened (and then abruptly adjourned for 40 days), Sunni Arabs expressed disquiet. "Saddam doesn't deserve all this," Ahmad Muhammad, a Mosul taxi driver complained to The New York Times. "In Halabja [the Kurdish city Saddam annihilated with a poison gas attack] there was an entire Iranian army inside our land, and who helped them enter? The traitors. What should he have done other than kill the traitors and our enemies?" Other Sunnis, reported The Washington Post, justified the wholesale slaughter of Kurdish civilians in the 1980s, pointing out that "The women and children who were killed were wives and children of these enemies." A barber in a Saddam-loyalist neighborhood of Baghdad was offended by the sight of a Kurdish judge sitting in judgment of the former leader. "As if the Arabs are a minority now, and the Kurds are the majority," sulked Ahmed Najim.

 Shiites and Kurds, by contrast, expressed bitter satisfaction that Saddam was at last facing justice. In the Shiite city of Dujail, site of the 1982 massacre of 143 men, people chanted "Death to Saddam" and carried photos of their fathers, brothers and sons who were killed by Saddam's security forces, who razed the town after someone in the city launched an assassination attempt on Saddam. "I had four sons executed by Saddam," a 64-year-old woman from Karbala told the Times. "When he's executed I'll finally hold their funerals."

 A tribal mindset precludes a genuine rule of law. The tribalist does not ask "what has this man done?" but instead "to whom did he do it?" Notice the assumption by the Iraqi barber that majorities will naturally oppress minorities. He apparently cannot even conceive of a Kurdish judge putting aside his personal feelings in order to administer justice fairly.

 Even worse though is the sense one gets from these reactions that sympathy stops at the tribe's edge. In Mosul, a Sunni stronghold, Saddam's defenders do not deny charges of mass murder. They simply justify it. Regarding Saddam's gassing of 5,000 Kurdish men, women and children during the Iran/Iraq War, they cite fear of a Kurdish/Iranian alliance.

 Can democracy flourish in such environment? Are we free of it ourselves?

 The first question cannot be answered except with time and patience. As to the second, the answer is yes and no. Americans have cleansed themselves to a remarkable degree of the primitive stain of tribalism. Look at the pride American servicemen in Iraq take in helping the Iraqi people. But weirdly enough, tribalism exerts continuing force among liberals. Theirs is a reverse tribalism: They honor every group but their own. And by so doing, they cannot even bring themselves to celebrate the American-led liberation of Iraq from one of the worst monsters of our time.

 This trial reminds us that while we found no weapons of mass destruction, we did nonetheless undertake a highly moral mission in ridding Iraq of its 30-year tormenter. Anyone not blinded by tribalism of one sort or another should be able to see that.