Milk-liver'd cowardice in the braggart's blood

Posted: Dec 18, 2003 12:00 AM

The Iraqis have given us a coward for all times. The beast is defanged, the tyrant is shorn of power, the bully is bereft of his protecting henchmen. Even his bodyguards ran from the scene of the rat hole.

Who could have thought Saddam Hussein would be taken alive? The rationalizations floating in the media paint him as an egomaniac determined to strut once more on stage, this time in a courtroom, mixing lies and distortions to sate his ego while frightening those whom his testimony is likely to expose for their contributions to his perfidy. Indeed, he may do all of that. But you don't have to look very far for the motive that he will never confess: He's terrified of dying.

"Man gives every reason for his conduct save one, every excuse for his crimes save one, every plea for his safety save one, and that one is his cowardice," wrote George Bernard Shaw.

Poets, philosophers and playwrights agree that the coward will endure any humiliation, suffer any indignity, as long as he can cling to life. Some cultures see death as too easy a punishment for a coward. In 6th century Greece, soldiers who fled from battle were required to sit in the marketplace for three days dressed as a woman. ("Make the blood of a bad man blush not gush.")

No doubt Saddam, a hedonist who reveled in his palaces and sent reward money to suicide bombers to do dirty deeds in his name, knew the terrorists he encouraged were saps.

It's difficult in the West to understand the mentality of men who encourage their children to kill others by killing themselves, but we can imagine how those families felt when they saw the man they admired as a superman cowering in a hole in the ground, who though heavily armed offered no defense of himself.

He was willing to put a price on the lives of Palestinian children, cheering them on to Islamist paradise to collect their 72 virgins but unwilling to go to collect his own heavenly reward. (Perhaps he's afraid that his 72 virgins will be 72 diseased hookers.)

President Bush, announcing that his men had seized Saddam, was careful to address first the people of Iraq, assuring them that the evil of the brute had been expunged at last. Then he warned us to avoid gloating because the work of our courageous soldiery is not finished. But we're entitled, like the Iraqis, to gloat a little. We're entitled to savor Saddam's indignity, the creepiness of his hidey hole, the lice in his hair, the fear in his eyes and the squalor of his miserable life among the 750,000 American dollars he will never get to spend.

The man with many mansions was reduced to living in his toilet. When an interrogator offered him a glass of water at the beginning of his first interview, he replied: "If I drink water I will have to go to the bathroom and how can I use the bathroom when my people are in bondage?" King Lear this is not.

Democracies do not usually sire villains or heroes greater than life size; the constant light from public scrutiny exposes the clay feet that crumble under the weight of what they do. We tease out the nagging flaws that afflict the courageous and look for ameliorating circumstances of even the most vicious among us. We rely on ethics and law to render complex judgments.

But ruthless dictators such as Hitler, Stalin and Saddam Hussein create a pervasive fear that magnifies lies into mythologies that require absolute allegiance and conformity. Such dictators not only murder those who speak out against them, but their families as well. They weave a deadly web of death and torture, manned by deceivers, informers and finks who fear for their own lives.

In outward appearance, such tyrants are emboldened braggarts, but once no longer safe their cold-blooded ruthlessness turns white, transformed by milk-livered cowardice. When Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi council, asked Saddam whether he was behind the attacks against American soldiers, he replied that he told the Iraqi people that he would personally fight the Americans with pistols, "and I have."

Hah. Shakespeare, as always, says it best:

Who knows himself a braggart,
Let him fear this; for it will come to pass
That every braggart shall be found an ass.