The consensus that Saddam Hussein should be tried for his crimes is a dangerous and naïve one. The quicker he dances at the end of a rope, the better for everyone, and the better for the rule of law as well. A trial gives the world community a façade of legality for the upcoming execution. But it carries a heavy price, and the price is not worth it.
First, Saddam will get a chance to harangue the court and play to the Sunnis who backed him all those years. He will get a chance to pretend that someone else gassed the residents of Halabja, that Iran and Kuwait were attacked in self-defense, and that Bush is the real war criminal. All of this will undermine Iraqi stability.
Second, the world has seen that witnesses in Rwanda have been killed before they could testify about the genocide they survived. The irony of surviving mass murder only to die for helping prosecute the killers is overwhelming. What are the chances a witness has when the judges and lawyers are receiving death threats.
And finally, this court meets none of the standards of a criminal proceeding. In a real trial, the court exists to determine guilt, assess any mitigating factors and then to punish as appropriate. Here the court exists to justify the killing of a sociopath whose life creates a continuing threat to the state of Iraq. This sham trial can only bring disrepute on legal proceedings all over the world, and it will make the OJ Simpson farce look good.
To understand what really needs to happen, a brief history lesson is in order. Back in 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to Elba in the Mediterranean. Having waged wars of aggression for years, and having killed at least a million and a half people in the process (technology kept him from doing more), the British, Prussians and Russians decided to lock him up and throw away the key.
He soon escaped, returned to France and began what is known as the “100 Days” during which time he reclaimed his throne, raised and army and went to war. Near the small Belgian town of Waterloo, 40,000 men died in a few hours on June 18, 1815. Every one of those men died because Napoleon lived.
Saddam Hussein is well-guarded by the American military – as Napoleon was by the British. But with a little friendly assistance, Saddam could be in the friendly territory of Tikrit in a few hours. Is such assistance unlikely? A friendly German at Nuremberg slipped Hermann Goering some cyanide to help him avoid the noose, so I don’t think Saddam escaping is a metaphysical impossibility. Were he to escape, how many more would die on both sides?
As the show trial continues, the Iraqi government is going to have to decide what to do with him once they convict him (no one expects him to walk). Death is a most likely result, though an endless prison term remains a possibility. In the case of the latter, the risk of escape and an attempt at restoration persists. In the case of a death penalty, the delay only creates dangers that are unnecessary.
One final historic point merits mention. After World War II, Winston Churchill suggested summary field executions for high ranking Nazis – that is, “shoot ‘em where we find ‘em.” It was Joseph Stalin who insisted on the war crimes trials. As dearly as I value human rights and legal protections, any trial that Stalin demanded and the Churchill opposed should be viewed with suspicion.