TCS Daily

Kill Saddam

By Michael Totten - February 19, 2004 12:00 AM

The Guardian newspaper reports there could be a two-year wait before Saddam Hussein sees the inside of a courtroom. Salem Chalabi, nephew of the well-known Iraqi exile Achmed Chalabi and an architect of the Iraqi war crimes tribunal, is concerned about balancing due process and the Iraqi people's thirst for quick vengeance. Admirable concerns, to be sure, especially considering the way things used to run in that country. But for the sake of peace and security, Saddam Hussein needs to be killed as quickly as possible.

I hate the death penalty.

It's gratuitous and excessive. Innocents are executed. There is no proof it deters would-be criminals. In a system of limited government, the state should not have the power to murder its citizens. Besides, a dead criminal is no less dangerous than a caged one.

None of those objections apply to the upcoming trial of Saddam Hussein. He is no mere criminal. He's the political leader of a murderous ideology with active followers who are not with him in that cage.

French lawyer Jacques Verges insists that Saddam be presumed innocent. Of course we're supposed to presume innocence at trials. But some things are better left unsaid. And there is no need to play make-believe outside of his trial.

Saddam Hussein is guilty.

Saddam Hussein is not an alleged former-dictator. He's a former dictator.

Saddam Hussein didn't allegedly wage a genocidal war against the Kurds of Northern Iraq. He waged a genocidal war against the Kurds of Northern Iraq. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International spent more than a decade interviewing witnesses, documenting atrocities, and counting the dead.

While Israel made the desert bloom, Saddam destroyed the marshes of Southern Iraq. It was part of a vicious ethnic-cleansing campaign against the Shi'ite Muslim Marsh Arabs who bitterly detested his rule. He dammed up the water and set the marshes ablaze with rockets and tanks. He didn't allegedly do this. The fire and smoke were seen from the space shuttle Endeavor.

The list of known crimes multiplies as more documents are collected, more mass graves are discovered, and new witnesses are interviewed in the meantime. Saddam Hussein will not be exonerated at trial. The odds that he will be wrongly convicted are zero.

We don't need the death penalty to deter crime in the United States. We have plenty of law-enforcement institutions in place. But there is no enforceable law at the anarchic level of nation-states. A little rough justice could take up some of that slack.

Dictators enjoy all manner of unique and undeserved employment perks. So long as oppressed citizens don't storm the palace and hang them, they usually die in office or enjoy a comfy retirement. The "international community" rarely stops them. Their subjects cower. Their neighbors tremble. European diplomats trip all over themselves trying to establish a dialogue that doesn't hurt any feelings.

Hanging the Nazis at Nuremberg was a terrific object lesson without any follow-up. Uganda's former Cannibal-In-Chief Idi Amin recently died in his bed in Saudi Arabia. Haiti's Baby Doc Duvalier is retired in Paris. Manuel Noriega was ousted from Panama in an invasion, but he's still keeping a mattress warm in a Florida jailhouse. Britain arrested former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, but he was spared even a trial. In the closing days of 2003, Slobodan Milosovic won a seat in Serbia's parliament from his prison cell in The Hague.

One of Saddam's daughters in Jordan recently huffed about his capture: "Where is the immunity that presidents enjoy?" It's time to revise expectations. It's time to add a refreshing new variable to the equation.

No state should have the right to kill its own citizens, especially not in a country like Iraq where Death By Government has been a part of the daily routine. But an Iraqi trial that ends with a toe-tagged Saddam wouldn't much resemble the old Baathist execution apparatus. The Iraqi state would not be killing its own. Saddam himself was the state. He was an absolute ruler who did not share power. Let the Iraqis have at him. It would be a coup d'tat in a court of law; a legal citizen's blow against the state.

The least important question is what Saddam Hussein deserves. This isn't about revenge. He deserves to be tortured and raped, but his captors are civilized. They will treat him far better than he ever treated his own. If I could choose a sentence based solely on what he has coming to him, one that stays within civilized bounds, I wouldn't have him killed. I'd put him up in a one-bed cell with Slobo in the Hague. The arrogant Arab nationalist deserves a Christian supremacist fascist as his bunkmate.

But this is not, in the end, about Saddam. The first order of business is establishing peace and security in Iraq. Saddam's very existence obstructs that process.

Saddam Hussein is no Jeffrey Dahmer. He has comrades loose in the streets; murderous, terrorizing, suicide-bombing fanatics. They murder aid workers and civil servants. They kill humanitarian envoys from the United Nations. They impale themselves on coalition forces, and massacre their own Iraqi countrymen. They are thugs and terrorists who declared open war on their country and civilization.

If Saddam Hussein lives he will call to them. If Saddam Hussein lives he will rally them without speaking a word. You can bet your bottom dollar they will demand his release. They could do what a Chechen death squad did in Moscow: take 700 hostages in a theater, wire it tight with explosives, and -- as Christopher Hitchens would put it -- demand the impossible, and demand it at gunpoint.

Saddam Hussein is a danger as long as he breathes.

Michael J. Totten writes from Portland, Oregon. Visit his Web log at


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