TCS Daily

Confronting 'He Who Confronts'

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - March 2, 2006 12:00 AM

"Boldness is a child of ignorance and baseness, far inferior to other parts. But nevertheless, it doth fascinate..."
-- Francis Bacon, 1625

If I may paraphrase the late Richard Pryor. That Saddam. He BAD.

Give this much to the former dictator of Iraq. Cojones, he's got.

Saddam Hussein's performance at his trial Wednesday showed that.

It reminded me a little bit of that moment in the movie, Judgment at Nuremberg, when Burt Lancaster, as the German jurist who had knuckled to the Nazis, rose to speak the truth, to the horror of his defense lawyer.

Well, it wasn't quite as dramatic and composed as that movie speech, of course, but it was pretty good. You can read translated excerpts from the trial transcript here.

Saddam had been sitting through the somewhat tedious proceedings for some time as his co-defendants tried to deal with an impressive array of documents regarding their roles in the "justice" meted out to the village of Dujail, where an assassination attempt against Saddam involving an attack on his motorcade had taken place in 1982.

More than a thousand villagers were imprisoned and many of them tortured. Somewhere around a hundred of them were hanged, a number of them just kids -- literally -- just 10 or 11 years old. Another 50 or so accused didn't make it to the gallows. They apparently died during "interrogation." Saddam ordered that 250,000 acres of farmland, including many orchards, around the village be laid waste and not permitted to be replanted for 10 years.

The special Iraqi court has been painstakingly developing and documenting these Dujail exactions and executions. The destruction of the village's orchards and the role of various co-defendants in carrying out Saddam's orders were being detailed when the former dictator suddenly and dramatically told the court in effect, "Forget the middle men. It's me you want."

Rising just before court was to be adjourned for two weeks, Saddam, clad in his usual gray suit, addressed the judge: "Your honor, you are looking for things and you have clarity in your hands, but you leave it and go looking for the unknown."

"You have no need to go after other people," Saddam said, gesturing broadly with his hands. "I razed the land. I don't mean I rode a bulldozer and razed it, but I razed it."

At another point, according to the BBC, he said "I am Saddam Hussein. I was in charge, and just because things have changed I am not going to say someone else was responsible."

No rope-a-dope. No buck passing. Nary a hem nor a haw. No parsing the meaning of "is."

Now let me stipulate here, that in Saddam we have a ruthless murderer, a liar, and a vengeful hater in that peculiarly refined and sometimes almost perfunctory tribal, peasant, Arab way. From his Sunni uncle in the village of Tikrit, he learned well the lesson of a kind of sublime stubbornness in the face of his enemies.

Saddam (the name means "one who confronts") combined this stubbornness with ruthlessness and with that sometimes almost endearing sort of histrionic mob-pleasing Arab bravado that various sheiks and kings have played for all its worth.

This isn't just an Arab thing, of course. Whatever their cultural trappings, history's beasts have their charms. It's part of the fascination of Castro "tawkin' baseball" with a flourish of his cigar, or Hitler in his Berchtesgaden tea house. Even that fat-faced little murderer Mao must have had a smiley face moment or two when relaxing in his overstuffed armchair.

Saddam rode his multifarious persona ever higher on a wave of sycophancy and fear until it became a grotesquely bloated self-regard, constantly reinforced by all those statues and murals and calendar paintings.

Those final days on the run and in that rat hole in the countryside may have temporarily diminished that self regard but they did not destroy it. All the months since his ignominious capture have allowed him time to pull himself together, enjoy his salty snacks and charm his jailers. There is, after all, a strong streak of the actor in him. (I wonder if he ever saw Anthony Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia, or Sean Connery in The Wind and the Lion?)

Maybe, deep down, Saddam thinks all this is going to turn out all right. Maybe he really believes that the Baathists are out there somewhere and they are going to burst into the courtroom, carry him out on their shoulders and put him back in his rightful place.

More likely, I think, he knows he is dead meat. He may have fully justified every bloody act of torture and wholesale murder in his mind but he knows the record is there nonetheless. He may be bewildered by the fledgling procedures and niceties of justice in this strange new court in which he finds himself. But he knows only too well about hatred and vengeance and the evening of scores. He knows how Arabs have played the game for centuries.

So, one might at least admire his boldness. In a narrow way, he's a "stand up guy." But don't take the fascination too far. As the great and thoughtful Francis Bacon noted in the rest of the quote cited above, boldness "doth fascinate and bind hand and foot those that are either shallow in judgment or weak in courage, which are the greatest part, yea, and prevaileth with wise men at weak times."

The Iraqi court must not be "weak in courage." It must be wise and strong. It must use Saddam's boldness as an opportunity. It must take him at his word. And deliver the justice he deserves.

The author is a TCS Daily Contributing Editor.


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