Magazine article The New Yorker

TRIALS; COMMENT Series: 1/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

TRIALS; COMMENT Series: 1/5

Article excerpt

"Revenge Is Sour" is the title that George Orwell gave to a short essay on war-crimes trials, written just after the Second World War. "The whole idea of revenge and punishment is a childish day-dream," he argued. "Properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also." He cited the story of an old woman reported to have fired five shots into the body of Benito Mussolini, one for each of her dead sons. "I wonder how much satisfaction she got out of those five shots, which, doubtless, she had dreamed years earlier of firing," Orwell wrote. "The condition of her being able to get near enough to Mussolini to shoot at him was that he should be a corpse."

If revenge is psychologically impossible, justice is politically necessary--not the fantasy of righting monumental wrongs but the reality of holding wrongdoers to account. The twentieth century came and went without justice. None of the century's great totalitarians ever had to sit at a defense table, confer with lawyers, rise with the court when the judge entered the room. Mussolini was lynched; Hitler committed suicide; Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot died in old age. Two international tribunals are currently grinding away at more recent crimes; but the Hutu propagandists convicted of genocide in Rwanda last month were barely known outside that country, and Slobodan Milosevic was a second-tier dictator. The trial of Saddam Hussein will be the first of a world-class mass murderer. The number of potential counts against Saddam exceeds half a million. Behind the Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni Arab Iraqis who were his principal victims stand Iranians and Kuwaitis with war-crimes charges of their own. Saddam imposed his name, his face, and his will on Iraqi history to a degree that makes lesser cults of personality seem like ordinary narcissism. The symbolic importance of his trial is exactly proportionate to his vast power.

Ann Clwyd, Tony Blair's special representative to Iraq, proclaimed, using American jargon, that Saddam's capture would bring "some kind of closure" to Iraqis. This thinking recalls the Bush Administration's original idea of a simple war of liberation, and shows as little grasp of the reality of Iraqis' lives. The insurgency against American and coalition forces gives no sign of relenting. Its inspirational leader has been ignobly caught, but guerrilla wars are seldom centrally controlled, the foreign occupiers remain in Iraq as targets, and the prospect of a more representative government is as threatening as ever to the privileged status of the country's Sunni Arabs. Nothing has been closed. Certain things, though, might now be opened. Large numbers of Iraqis--perhaps a silent majority--have had no desire to see a return to Baathist rule, but they have had little faith in the Americans' ability to prevent it and no way to protect themselves. Until now they've held back, almost literally staying home while chaos spreads in the streets and determined religious sectarians make bids for power. For these Iraqis, Saddam's demotion from mythic evil to the shabby figure who emerged from his hole sputtering, "I am Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq, and I am willing to negotiate," could lift a long shadow and mark the start of civic life.

The political direction that post-Saddam Iraq will take depends partly on the way Saddam himself is shown the exit. …

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