The Magazine

Thus All Too Seldom to Tyrants

Saddam's punishment was a rare instance of just deserts.

Jan 15, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 17 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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"Rejoice not when thy enemy falleth"--that is the Bible's advice (Proverbs 24:17), and the classical rabbinic tradition cites this verse in urging us never to celebrate the death of an enemy no matter how evil. But Americans have plenty to celebrate in the trial and punishment of Saddam Hussein by his own nation, which America and her allies made possible. The trial of Saddam was a triumph for one of the noblest of all causes: the sanctity of justice no matter how powerful the criminal, no matter how poor or powerless the victim. May the same thing happen to terrorist tyrants everywhere. But it isn't likely to. For a nation to pass sentence on its own deposed dictator is a rare event.

In the days following Saddam's execution we heard often about how the Iraqis (and by implication their American protectors) had botched it. Saddam was taunted on the gallows, and his last moments were videotaped by witnesses who should not have been collecting souvenirs. Those infractions of execution etiquette ought not to have been allowed, but don't kid yourself: No execution is ever pretty. And in this squeamish, fastidious nation it is easy to forget the significance of a hanging; a British royal commission once spelled it out. Hanging is "a peculiarly grim and derogatory form of execution, suitable for sordid criminals and crimes."

In any case, those who criticize the manner of Saddam's execution invite the world to contemplate the ways in which the convict himself did the deed. How much dignity did his thug henchmen allow Iraqis who were about to be fed into industrial shredders or to have nails driven into their skulls? "Execution with dignity" is virtually a contradiction in terms, but many believe that a noose and a swift broken neck were too good for a man who had murdered so many and created so much misery and agony in this sad, suffering world.

All things considered, the trial of Saddam Hussein was a moral bull's-eye in a field where bull's-eyes are rare. The last hundred years have seen many of the most vicious murderers the world has ever known. Some were tried; plenty were not.

The bestial cruelty with which the Japanese army treated captive soldiers and whole Asian peoples in World War II will be a reproach to Japan forever. Some of the foulest, highest-ranked criminals were tried at the Tokyo war crimes trial. Eleven nations, Western and Asian, sent judges. Sixteen defendants were sentenced to life, seven to death. And countless small-fry torturers, gang rapists, and cold-blooded murderers were never tried at all.

After the war, the French tried Philippe Pétain and Pierre Laval, chief authors of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. Both were sentenced to death. (Pétain's sentence was commuted on account of age, and he died in prison.)

But the fates of leading Nazi gangsters were a mixed bag. Some were tried at Nuremberg. Some were executed. But Himmler committed suicide before he was tried, Goebbels and Hitler himself before they were even captured.

A concerted, high-priority effort might perhaps have taken Hitler alive in the last weeks of the war, as Berlin disintegrated. But it never happened. And we'll never know how much this failure has cost. Mankind may never have another chance to put the devil himself in the dock.

Stalin was a mass murderer on Hitler's own scale. He never ran the smallest risk of facing trial and died (in 1953) in his bed. His totalitarian grip on the Soviet Empire made it impossible for his terrorized people to rise against him. Once again we will never know the cost to mankind of this failure of justice. That communism means Stalin as surely as Nazism means Hitler is a fact that (evidently) many people do not know; meanwhile, Russia coasts downhill towards a resurrected pseudo-Communist dictatorship.

Mao died in his bed. Castro is on his way. Pol Pot of the Khmer Rouge, who slaughtered perhaps three million Cambodians, died in the Cambodian jungle in 1998--admittedly under house arrest, but held by his own Khmer Rouge, not any national or international authority. Idi Amin, butcher of Uganda, died four years ago in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The mass-murderer Radovan Karadzic has evaded capture and is apparently a hero to (at least some) Bosnian Serbs.

Justice wins occasionally. Slobodan Milosevic died last year in his cell during his long-running trial by international tribunal for mass murder in the former Yugoslavia. The Greek colonels who ran a brutal regime during the late 1960s and early '70s were brought to trial after democracy was restored; Georgios Papadopoulos, the most prominent, died of cancer in prison.