Try Saddam?

Posted: Dec 17, 2003 12:00 AM
What on earth is it that we should want from Saddam Hussein? The New York Times set are going on about an exemplary trial that will vindicate international tribunal procedures, abiding by "the complex legal issues posed by this trial" (to quote one editorial), which can be done only using "specialists in human rights and war crimes issues." Oh yes, and it would be hard to get participation by lawyers from enlightened states if the trial were to permit capital sentences.

The baloney here is truly offensive. Here is what we should want from Saddam, live:

  • As much information as we can usefully get from him concerning the whereabouts of subordinate criminals from his regime. As also, what accounts he can give us of the preparations he had in mind for a future arsenal of war weapons, and what he knows of stratagems for concealing those that he had.

  • We should insist on priorities in the matter of his trial that transcend Ethics 101 courses on proper procedures in the prosecution of criminals. We have three models here to inform us.

    (1) The Nuremberg trial (l945-'46) for major war criminals was singular because none such had ever been done; because the setup of it was political (a Soviet judge, whose country had engaged in every crime the Nazis were being tried on, participated and had certain veto powers); and because, among the defendants, there were those who could conscientiously plead not guilty. Indeed, three were exonerated, so that was a call for judicial discrimination.

    (2) The Eichmann model was, once again, sui generis. He had been scooped up from Argentina, raising international political and legal questions. He was unquestionably criminal, but the recounting of the Holocaust story over a period of months served the purpose of reminding the world of the pandemic nature of Nazi guilt. The Israelis had abolished capital sentences -- but, with a little nod at legal convention, reinstated it for the commendable purpose of giving the Israeli people a satisfaction not otherwise achievable.

    (3) The model in The Hague gives us Slobodan Milosevic as the star player. That action is in its third year. It has served only the purpose of encouraging equivocations, in which Milosevic is as accomplished as he was in executing a genocidal approach to ethnic cleansing. A truly balanced judiciary is at work here: three judges of disparate backgrounds, one Englishman, one South Korean and one Jamaican. One might mention the international court in Sierra Leone, commissioned to look into regional war criminals. The court has been operating for about a year. There have been indictments. Nobody has yet been tried.

    The very idea that Saddam Hussein needs the niceties of Blackstone's laws prescribing judicial procedure and the means of protecting the innocent is a surrender to epistemological pessimism: the notion that you can't ever really prove anything. Built into that nihilist surrender is doubt about first principles. If there is anybody in town who believes that Saddam Hussein is not guilty of crimes however described, what we need to worry about is him, not Saddam. The notion that we should be immobilized by the kind of skepticism that demands full-blown trials with judges from Jamaica and amici curiae from Russia and France tells us that a lot more is riding here than the fate of Saddam Hussein.

    It isn't to ask for lynch law or even for victor's justice to say simply: This is a man, finally apprehended, who killed by the thousands and tortured his people, committing genocide north and south. His "trial" should be of the order we'd have given to Adolf Hitler if he had been taken alive. Exhibit him, make him dwell on what he has done, satisfy the Iraqi people that we share their concern, and that having dispatched an army to their country to contain and disarm him, we will back the Iraqi court that sends him to the gallows. If anybody around wants to plead his cause, go ahead. There will always be fever swamps from which they can make their nescient calls.