TCS Daily

Gangland Slaying

By Lee Harris - July 25, 2003 12:00 AM

Few things say more about a society than how it imagines its future. Until not long ago, Iraq thought its future would be dominated by one or both of the sons of Saddam Hussein, Uday and Qusay. And that is why it is proving so difficult for some Iraqis to believe that they are really dead. Because they had never imagined a future Iraq without them.


And with good reason. For how, after all, could the Iraqis have gone about getting rid of them? By petitions and referendums? By asking them nicely to relinquish power? By appealing to the sense of civic virtue, patriotism, or conscience?


Look at their faces and you see clearly see just how utopian such fantasies are. Men like that do not turn over their power to others because they would be killed at once if they did so. They have ruled by terror for so long that they must go on ruling by terror if they merely wish to stay alive.


Uday and Qusay were not ruthless because of some personality defect. Ruthlessness was their job, just as it is the modus operandi of every gangster who wishes to keep control over his territory, where the cardinal rule is that you must always be prepared to display more conspicuous ruthlessness than your enemies. And this is precisely what Uday and Qusay did, and why torture was not a personal psychological aberration with them, but the foundation of their power.


To call Uday and Qusay "gangsters" might sound a bit strange, but it is the right word to use. Just as Chicago gangsters operated behind fronts, so too did Usay and Qusay; only their front was not an antique store or an importing business, but the state of Iraq. Indeed, before the U.S. attacked Iraq, Uday and Qusay would have inherited the country the way the sons of Mafioso inherit their family's business. And they would have kept in charge of it in the same way that their father had kept in charge of it. By terror and by torture.


How was such a state of affairs possible? In a world in which it is no longer possible to inherit human beings in the form of slaves, how is it possible to inherit them in the form of whole nations?


Ultimately it goes back to the idealistic doctrine known as the right of national self-determination. A people can decide on their own form of government, and if they want Uday and Qusay to succeed Saddam Hussein, who are we to tell them no?


But this is a cruel parody of the reality, a fact that has been revealed to the world in the aftermath of the Iraqi War, as evidence mounts as to the true gangster nature of the regime -- a regime that stood for nothing except its own endless perpetuation of power.


No, this was not the way it was supposed to be. The right of national self-determination was supposed to protect the democratic will of the people who lived in a particular geographical territory. But in the case of Iraq, it protected only Uday, Qusay, and their henchmen, and left the Iraqi people utterly defenseless against their depredations.


Which is why we should consider replacing the primacy of a right of national self-determination with a more fundamental right -- the right of a people not to be ruled by gangsters and by thugs.


There was nothing unique about Uday and Qusay. They were representative of all the gangsters who have ever blighted the surface of the planet. And if their lives can teach us a lesson, it is that the world is safe from them only when they are dead, and not a moment before.


Lee Harris is a contributing editor to and the author of "Civilization and Its Enemies" which will be published this fall by Simon and Schuster.


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