the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 December 18


The image on my computer screen when I arose Sunday morning is one that I will likely never forget. A few hours before, when I had last checked the news, Saddam Hussein was a phantom in the world, immaterial, legendary, at large and larger than life. When I returned to consciousness, he was real again, more human than he had ever been. The unkempt, physically-substantial person depicted had even undergone medical examination and DNA testing to check his health and verify his identity ― and surely if he had been superhuman, as his followers believed, some suspicion would have arisen under the eye of modern science.

Saddam was all too real for the millions whose lives he took, and for the many more millions whose lives he ruined, if somewhat inhuman (whether super- or sub-). Saddam was also real for the committed human-rights activists who documented his abuses and advocated ending them. He was real enough for those who benefitted from his rule, not just Baathists and collaborators in Iraq, but egoistic political realists and collaborators outside of Iraq. The greatest value to the pictures, then, was to give substance to Saddam for those who turned their eyes from his prior existence not because they knew they didn’t care, but because they believed they did.

Those who fatuously compare the US occupation of Iraq or the Israeli occupation of Arab Palestine to the Tikriti occupation of Iraq, or those who idiotically think that the former occupations are worse, are not, unfortunately, limited to Sunni Arab chauvinists. The others include those who could hardly be bothered to pause for a positive remark on the end of his regime before resuming their platitudinous declamations against “imperialism”, by which they meant not merely the many bad things the United States has done, but whatever the United States does, regardless of any positive benefits. These same people, needless to say, are less pleased that Saddam is in captivity than they are pleased to have a chance to insist on Saddam’s humane treatment in captivity.

I will go as far as to claim that I have studied the world and particularly its tyrants and the phenomenon of dominion more than nearly all others; and I will say without hesitation that, since the death of Mao Zedong, no single individual has done as much physical harm to other humans as Saddam has. He is misleadingly supposed to have begun his reign in 1979, after Mao died, when in fact he was ruling Iraq de facto for a decade prior to that, throughout most of the Cultural Revolution. But even just counting the period since Mao’s death, Saddam has a death toll to his name greater even than Pol Pot, and incomparably higher than any of the other tyrants who are often mentioned primarily to demonstrate that the speaker has actually heard of someone who wasn’t of particular concern to the Western powers. Those who seriously want to throw George Bush or Ariel Sharon into that discussion do not deserve to be taken seriously. Of course, there have been individuals who were inherently more dangerous than Saddam, some known and many unknown, but for sheer human destruction, Saddam surpassed all rivals ― a superlative that, given his megalomania, would surely please him.

Bush, Saddam’s jailer but no diplomat, does not know when to keep his mouth shut. It was not enough to say that Saddam would be tried by Iraqis, which would have spared the United States any additional blame from the outside over this war; he had to opine on the sentence, calling for death. This is not particularly helpful coming from someone who presided, as governor of Texas, over bountiful executions, and professed not to have the slightest doubt of the guilt of any of the executed.

The United States uses torture, officially and unofficially. It exists in the interrogation of suspects and the unacknowledged punishment of convicts. The US is particularly inclined to allow proxies in other parts of the world to perform our torture for us, and has specifically transferred suspects to other jurisdictions so that they could be tortured. Bush at least claims to oppose torture, but his actions and the ideology of his retinue show that the matter is viewed more pragmatically.

I agree with my fellow liberals that we should not execute or torture Saddam. These are irreparable physical harms that could only be justified if we had perfect knowledge of Saddam’s guilt, or if the limits on our knowledge were balanced with limits on our ability to prevent the irreparable physical harms to others that Saddam has committed and would certainly commit in the future. We have the ability to lock Saddam up safely for life; we should therefore avoid the risk, as a matter of principle, of executing him unjustly, even though every reasonable person in the entire world believes that he is guilty, and even though he deserves to be killed and tortured as much as nearly any person who has ever lived.

I should like to be spared the question “Who are we to judge?”, which I can easily answer for myself alone. I am prepared to sit in judgement of Saddam without further evidence; but that is partially because, unlike so many of those who would have left him in power, I have bothered to examine the evidence. I also have no problem making judgements, since I strongly believe that the raison d’être of consciousness is to observe the world and then make judgements about it. Those who equate this with “playing God” have metaphysical views quite different from mine, and also, as it happens, quite different from anything remotely coherent. Whom do they suppose to be responsible for carrying out God’s judgements? Do they believe that God effects all of his decisions without the merest assistance from the humans we are led to believe he controls? Is it all bolts of lightning?

The question that needs to be answered by all of those who have prepared, pat statements to make on Saddam’s behalf is what, exactly, they would do with him, and how their methods would lead to an overall reduction of tyranny in the world. We have all heard, and I hope believe, that avoiding vindictive cruelty to a prominent prisoner like Saddam will contribute to the moral argument against cruelty of any sort. But we cannot do nothing; that is the same argument that perpetuated his cruelty for thirty-five years.

The problem, which I am partially guilty of myself, is a failure to admit that there is evil in the world. ‘Evil’ is a clumsy word, hard to define, overused, overwrought, and overpious. I prefer ‘dominion’ because it can be defined and can take on the gradation that exists in the world. It is possible to speak of a mild example of dominion. It is impossible to say that something is marginally evil. It is evil or it is not. Even if you are having a hectic shopping day, it is hard to assert that the person who cuts in front of you in line is evil.

But the person who starts a war for self-aggrandizement that takes a million lives, in which he orders the use of poison gas on the enemy; the person who massacres four or five hundred thousand political opponents and buries them in mass graves; the person who uses his domain’s wealth to celebrate and pamper himself and his cronies and to develop gruesome weapons rather than to feed and care for the general population; the person who starves several hundred thousand ordinary persons as a political tool to cow compassionate outsiders into giving him unlimited freedom to further oppress those ordinary persons, and to potentially expand his domain on all sides; the person who institutes a police state in which fear and shame are ubiquitous because horrendous torture is such a familiar result of the slightest ill humor of the pettiest local official ― surely that person is evil.

Saddam and his kind are about power. We must deprive them of power, with force if necessary. In Saddam’s case, that was already done. But Saddam and his kind are also about the appearance of sublime dignity. We must deprive them of dignity as well. Let Saddam keep his miserable life, I say. But let us give him something to go with it, something the rest of us have all too much of thanks largely to the forces of dominion that Saddam so well represents. Let him be given humility. He should not just be humbled. He should be humiliated.

In all seriousness, Saddam should be stripped naked and marched through every population center where either his supporters or his victims live. He should then be dressed in a clown suit, and confined in a transparent cell in the central square of Baghdad. That would give every one of his supporters and his victims, and the many who somehow neglected his existence, and most importantly the limited few who are now doing or might eventually do the things Saddam has done, a clear picture of the fact that he is real, that he is human, and that he is finished. Damn the Geneva Conventions; we must subject Saddam to insult, make him a public curiosity, as a deterrent to any more of the unspeakable acts he and his regime were responsible for. Yes, this might awaken some human sympathy for him, and that is unfortunate. But it will also provide the only effective deterrent to future tyrants. Charles Taylor is living in a mansion in Nigeria; the lesson is that the only consequence of years of brutality and atrocity is a quiet life of luxury. What possible disincentive does the next Charles Taylor have?

The persons at issue do not anguish over the crimes they contemplate and then commit. But they are calculating in their cruelty and viciousness; and they are pathologically vain. If we cannot have death and torture as deterrents, we should not deny ourselves the deterrent of humiliation. We are speaking of evil, if such a thing exists, and at the very least I want all of these vainglorious bastards to contemplate that, should they fall from power and end in the hands of the public, the public will see them going about their bodily business just like the rest of us. This is vulgar, to be sure, but ‘vulgar’ originally meant “of the common people”, and I can think of no better way to yank these pretentious murderers off of their pedestals. I don’t want to watch Saddam wiping his ass; but those who have survived his torture cells could probably use a good laugh.


Original version


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