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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackguard

The uprising in Firdos Square may have felt familiar, but nothing like it has ever really happened before.

11:30 PM, Apr 9, 2003 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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IN ALL LIKELIHOOD, the pictures Americans saw on every news network Wednesday morning will be the ones we see on the covers of newsweeklies when they run their year-end wrap-ups next December: jubilant Iraqis dancing around the toppled statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, citizens of all stripes wiping their shoes on torn-down propaganda posters. After September 11, this cannot be the story of the decade, but it will be the story of the year--because it is an historic event.

To call the sudden uprising against Saddam Hussein's regime historic is to say that nothing exactly like it has ever happened before. But that hasn't stopped commentators from wanting to put Saddam's collapse in context by likening it to something or other. Most prominent among the comparisons, of course, was to the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Why? It was the surely sight of men wielding sledgehammers, which is not something you see every day. But appearances deceive. The Wall was the symbol of Soviet oppression, true, but it was also the practical means of its enforcement. For Germany to be free, it was logistically necessary that the wall be destroyed. In Iraq, by contrast, the sledgehammers came out purely as a means of expressing hatred of Saddam. Wednesday's sledgehammers indicated the anti-Saddam position in Iraq was at least as strong as the anti-Communist one in East Germany.

Others sought to compare the humiliation of Saddam to that of Mussolini after his execution by Italian partigiani in 1945, his corpse dragged through the streets of Milan behind a car. It was the spectacle of Iraqi kids hitching a ride through the streets of Baghdad on top of Saddam's decapitated head that left this impression. But it's worth remembering that Saddam (be he alive or be he dead) was not yet in the hands of his political foes.

This dictatorship was sui generis. You can see this, symbolically, in the actual destroyed statue in Firdos Square, which did not fall with a giant Ozymandian weight, like those sturdy (whatever else you can say about them) Stalins and Dzerzhinskys that used to dot eastern Europe. No, this thing was cheap, hollow, and phony. When the statue started toppling, it just sagged. It didn't have enough weight to snap the pipes with which it had been tacked onto its plinth. It wasn't even a block of stone, but a collection of screwed-in modular parts, as in a model-airplane kit. But there was nothing "symbolic" about the terror of Saddam regime, which was also sui generis. The same morning the statues were toppled, news broke that the allies had liberated a "children's prison" set up for those kids whose parents had not let them join Baath-party youth organizations. A political prison for children!

It was a beautiful thing for Iraq, and for the world, that we saw the statue fall in Firdos Square. It would be an exaggeration to say that it is as familiar to Western viewers as the World Trade Center was to Iraqi ones. But anyone who watches television has seen Firdos Square lit green on those nights over the past decade when the United States and Britain have carried out one of their retributive bombings. Over the past three weeks, it has been a familiar backdrop for various fixed-position cameras, of the sort used by Abu Dhabi TV. This is the part of Iraq we have known for years and will (in a virtual sense) inhabit for quite some time. It was a good spot for the Iraqi people to enjoy their finest hour.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.