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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Today's Europeans seem enthusiastic about war crimes trials. But they see themselves as the only trustworthy judges. Britain was unwilling to leave Augusto Pinochet to the justice of his own Chilean nation. During a 1998 trip to London, the Chilean ex-dictator (who ran a brutal regime that also--inconveniently--turned the nation's economy around and made it the strongest and freest in South America) was placed under house arrest, on the orders of a Spanish judge. He was freed in 2000 after being pronounced too ill to stand trial. (He has since died.) Belgium defined the height of arrogance for all time in 2001, when the Belgian Prosecutor's Office tried to indict Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, for war crimes. Anyone with half a brain is aware that no nation in the world is more self-critical--more apt to investigate its own crimes and try its own actual criminals--than Israel, except for the United States. The idea of Europe sitting in moral judgment on Israel would be funny, except that no joke can be amusing forever--and this one has been done to death. Perhaps Europe would consider composing a new joke.

What do we gain in the end by trying a broken, humiliated dictator and then putting him to death or locking him away?

We comfort the survivors and the victims' families--but not much; justice for the man who tore your universe apart can't repair the universe.

An execution makes it impossible for the former strongman to rally his supporters and return to power--which is important to a struggling young democracy like Iraq.

And doing justice accomplishes other things that are even more important. By pinning a criminal's crimes on his back, we give evil a local habitation and a name; we make it concrete; we make plain that it can and will be defeated in the end.

Most important, the trial and punishment of a despot makes a loud-and-clear proclamation to the world: The strong may not terrorize the weak, not now and not ever. The Bible tells us not to rejoice over fallen enemies, and has another message also (Deut 16:20): "Justice, justice shalt thou pursue!"

David Gelernter is a national fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.