Monday Musing: Some Random Thoughts on the Trial of Saddam Hussein

On November 5, one year and 17 days after his trial began, Saddam Hussein was found guilty. Predictably, the trial was subject to criticism and questions of legitimacy before it began, and from quite different sides of the issue no less.


In the lead up to the war but especially in the wake of the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s regime was used to justify the invasion. Over his reign, Saddam’s attacks on his own civilian populations left nearly a few hundred thousand corpses, even by conservative estimates. If we hold him responsible for the Iran-Iraq War, we can add an additional 1 million killed or wounded.

Against this backdrop, the decision to try him for the massacre in the village of Dujail of 150 Shi’a men and boys following an assassination attempt was a surprise. Images of the weirdly named Anfal massacre of at least 50,000 Kurds (other estimates range into 100,000 to 180,000), especially of the chemical weapons attack on the village of Halabja, had been played regularly in the build up to the war. What the Dujail massacre had going for it was that it was straightforward and the great powers weren’t complicit. The trial thus already began with sweeping the dirt of the great powers, East and West, under the rug.


From the outset, questions of whether a government set up by foreign victors could legitimately try Saddam Hussein loomed over the trial. Mahathir Mohammed, Ahmed Ben Bella, Roland Dumas, and Ramsey Clark (now, there’s an interesting set) all moved to set up a joint committee to insure a fair trial. Respectable organizations such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch questioned the independence and impartiality of the court and raise concerns about the trials fairness.

The trial itself saw assassinations, the resignation of judges, death threats against defense attorneys—all of which leads to questions of not whether Saddam did it, but whether the trial process itself was fair. It certainly wasn’t orderly.

I only sporadically followed the trial. I was skeptical that it would achieve much in terms of personal or political justice. Moreover, I was doubtful that it would do much in establishing the political legitimacy of the new Iraqi government. All of which just lead to me cringe or sigh as the reports came in on the trial’s progress.

I couldn’t really imagine anything other than a death sentence, rumors of Rumsfeld’s offer of leniency in exchange for Saddam’s calling on insurgents to disarm and surrender notwithstanding. The task for and before Iraq was its own transformation. Given the regime’s treatment of Shi’as and Kurds, and de facto Kurdish independence in the northern Iraq, it had to reconstitute itself as a polity if it was, is going to stay together. It was also to transition to a democracy. Against this backdrop, Saddam’s execution would have to be something like Cadmus’ slaughter of the cow to the gods in order to establish Thebes or the execution of Louis XVI, that is, something of a foundational sacrifice.

The trial, verdict and execution would be truth and reconciliation, memory and a break with the past, and the legitimation of the new political order and the nation, all of which would have to be achieved in the midst of occupation and civil war, as well as the patronage of the some of the more incompetent political figures in recent and even not so recent history.


Maybe it was the constant invocation of the Nazis as an analog for Saddam, but part of me was hoping that out of the coverage of the trial would come the sort of reportage that Hannah Arendt filled the pages of The New Yorker with during the trial of Adolph Eichmann, pieces which became the basis of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

There were enough parallel issues: the legitimacy of the court trying Saddam; the attempt to have the horrors of Iraqi Ba’athism become the foundation myth (in the sense of mythic, not in the sense of false or not true) which would create a continuity between the peoples of Iraq and a new Iraqi polity; the issue of complicity of Shi’a and Kurdish leaders, the West, the East bloc, China, the rest of the Arab world; the Pontius Pilate like reaction of much of the world to the trial; the nature of international law, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Moreover, there is a tale to be told of the hope and tragic descent into corruption and brutality of much of the post-colonial experience, a trajectory and narrative captured only on occasion and waiting to be captured in the form of the political theory-cum-reportage that Arendt deployed so well. Eichmann in Jerusalem, whatever its limitations, help us to understand something about modernity, the officialese of modern bureaucracy and ethics.

In Saddam Hussein and the experience of Ba’athism in Iraq, I imagine a similar tale could be told of the colonial aftermath, the Cold War, and the devolutions into thuggery.

I thought of Arendt and Eichmann in Jerusalem at the outset of the trial, but was strongly reminded of it after the verdict was read. Arendt famously writes of Eichmann as he goes to the gallows:

He begun by stating emphatically that he was a Gottgläubiger, to express in common Nazi fashion that he was no Christian and did not believe in life after death. He then proceeded: “After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them“. In the face of death, he had found the cliché used in funeral oratory … It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had thought us–the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.

Right after the verdict was delivered, Saddam’s lawyer delivered a message from the convicted dictator.

“The message from President Saddam to his people came during a meeting in Baghdad this morning, just before the so-called Iraqi court issued its verdict in his trial,” Khalil al-Dulaimi told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Baghdad.

“His message to the Iraqi people was ‘pardon and do not take revenge on the invading nations and their people’,” al-Dulaimi said, quoting Saddam.

“The president also asked his countrymen to ‘unify in the face of sectarian strife’,” the lawyer added.

If in the original idea of the war crimes and at the same time political trial, verdict and execution were to pave the road for the creation a new democratic, and unified Iraq, then Saddam was clearly attempting to steal the thunder and make his death the founding of a new Iraq in a different way. He would go off to the gallows like a patriarch whose last request of his children is to be more decent and united. It echoed a bad Bollywood movie. But if he was acting like a patriarch whose dying request of his children was to be generous, tolerant, and forgiving, it was more as a patriarch who had molested and brutalized them through out his life. Needless to say, the pleas weren’t being heard.

I avoided watching or following the trial because it was, despite its attempts at uncovering the crimes of Saddam Hussein in Dujail, an exercise in self-deception for all parties involved, and not because it was a victor’s justice. Self-deception, as the late political and moral philosopher Bernard Williams liked to point out, involves a conspiracy between the deceiver and the deceived. The idea that the choice of the Dujail massacre was anything other than a political choice, that the court was really interested in truthfulness, or even the creation of a new Iraq was the deception that all but a few purchased. If the trial of Saddam Hussein was to be one of the first attempts to address the new Iraq responsibly, then it has failed miserably. And we’ve lied to ourselves in thinking so.

Back to back, the self-delusions of Saddam Hussein and the self-deception of the coalition forces do offer lessons. But these seem hard to articulate. The trial, the verdict and the response itself seem to be lessons in (and the inversion has been used before) the evil of banality, of what happens when the quest for deeper political truth and the pressing political concerns of the community are subsumed to the interests of narrow parties. Let’s hope the Anfal trial fares better and that Iraq, its past, and future are more responsibly addressed.