Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of International Law

Violence and Play in Saddam's Trial

Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of International Law

Violence and Play in Saddam's Trial

Article excerpt

[In the performance of Saddam's trial, which culminated in the executions of Saddam and two of his co-defendants, we find both lawmaking and law-preserving violence at work. The new Iraqi State exercised its law-preserving violence when sitting in judgment on Saddam's own acts of law-preserving violence. Yet the trial was also an affirmation of its own legitimacy on the part of the new regime, a performance designed to justify and uphold the lawmaking violence of the Iraqi war. The violences of law, the violences which found and reinforce the authority of the state, are anchored in performance. There is a symbiotic relationship between violence and play; the violence of law requires play, and hence the administration of state violence against Saddam and his co-defendants occurred in the form of the rule-bound, orderly performance of the trial. Yet other forms of play, other more spontaneous performances, can disrupt the violence of law. The defiant performances of Saddam and his co-defendants suggest that play can be a strategy for negotiating the violence of law.]


I   Introduction
II  Violence and Play
III The Violence of the Trial
IV  Play in Saddam's Trial
V   Conclusion


In 2006, the first Iraqi trial (1) of Saddam Hussein and his seven co-defendants was undeniably the most publicised trial, the show trial, in the 'war on terror'. This trial, and the executions which followed, have been met with strong criticism from various organisations and individuals concerned about procedural flaws and unfairness, as well as from governments and groups opposed to the application of the death penalty. Critics of the trial process include Human Rights Watch, an international human rights organisation which constantly monitored the trial proceedings. (2) Human Rights Watch has argued that the trial process was fundamentally flawed, with significant administrative, procedural and substantive legal defects. (3) These defects detract from the credibility of the trial (4) and from its value as part of the historical record of human rights violations under Saddam's government. (5)

However, my focus is not on the defects in the trial process. I am interested, rather, in the themes of violence and play: in the extent to which multiple acts of violence surrounded, supported, justified, corroded and were judged in the trial process; and in the central role of different forms of play within this process. Play, in the form of ceremony or spectacle, is integral to the administration of state violence. Yet Saddam's trial also demonstrates the possibilities of play as an antidote to such violence, as a subversive device which can disrupt and undermine the ordered performance of law-preserving violence.


I shall explore the multiple manifestations of violence in Saddam's trial by drawing on Walter Benjamin's distinction between lawmaking violence and law-preserving violence. (6) Saddam's trial exemplifies the characteristic interplay between these two forms of violence, or what Benjamin describes as the 'dialectical rising and falling' in these forms of violence. (7) In this 'oscillation', lawmaking violence contributes to the origin of every state, which then exercises law-preserving violence in 'suppressing hostile counterviolence'. (8) Eventually, when 'new forces of those earlier suppressed [forms of violence] triumph over the hitherto lawmaking violence and thus found a new law', (9) the cycle continues.

The foundation of all states lies in acts of violence which could well be interpreted as acts of terrorism, acts of revolution or acts of rebellion by the displaced regime. (10) If, however, such acts are successful in achieving political revolution, they acquire a belated legitimacy. Jacques Derrida, in his influential reading of Benjamin's essay, describes the moment of the foundation of each state as the 'ungraspable revolutionary instant', (11) a moment in which no law applies. …

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