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Saddam & The Paralyzed Int'l Community

By Victor Davis Hanson

International outrage last month followed the grisly execution of Saddam Hussein. United Nations and international moralists from France to Cairo were livid at the fifteen-century spectacle--and quickly blamed the United States for allowing the Iraqis to sully the punishment.

Sadly, the end of Saddam was indeed gross and undignified. Some creepy Shiite guards heckled him at the gallows and filmed his harrowing last moments. But Saddam's culpability for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents was never in doubt. And his execution was no Tombstone necktie party.

The court that convicted and executed him was authorized by an elected government. Its two-year-long proceedings were transparent and televised. Saddam himself often harangued and shouted down the judges.

But most importantly, by any measure of fairness, Saddam's fate was singular in the annals of recent murderous dictators. The world seems to forget that usually such killers are either given statues, villas in exile, or, even when tried, rarely convicted and punished.

The mass-murdering Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao together killed off nearly 100 million people. Yet both died in their sleep. They are still heroes to many in Russia and China.

Worse yet, examine the fates of more recent killers. Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the savage "cannibal" president of the Central African Republic, was given sanctuary by the now hypercritical France. He was even on friendly, gift-exchanging terms with then French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

Uganda's monster incarnate, Idi Amin, killed more than Bokassa. But as a Muslim he won a sumptuous, near-quarter century exile from the government of Saudi Arabia that now oddly expresses disgust at Saddam's constitutional trial--before dying peacefully at 80.

A psychopathic Pol Pot may have engineered the deaths of over a million Cambodians. He too was never punished for the killing fields. In fact, the United Nations had earlier voted to recognize his government. Thailand protected him in exile.

Over a million were slaughtered in Rwanda in spring 1994. Neither the United Nations nor French troops in the region did anything to stop the genocide. True, the United Nations established courts to try the guilty. But sixteen years later, the sluggish trials still plod on with only a handful of convictions and no capital sentences.

Three infamous killers are usually associated with the horror in the former Yugoslavia. Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic ten years after the fact are still loose somewhere in the Balkans. Both apparently have little worry about the short arm of European law, much less the utopian rhetoric of the EU.

Slobodan Milosevic, the bloody architect of the mass killing of thousands of Kosovars and Bosnians, was turned over to a United Nations war crimes tribunal in 2001. Those court proceedings at The Hague dragged on inconclusively for nearly five years before he died without a verdict--legally still an innocent man and thus redeemed to millions.

Hafez al-Assad, Gen. Pinochet, Fidel Castro, and a score of others killed with relative impunity, and died, or will die, without much fear of a cell or noose.

The list of spared--or pampered--mass-murdering tyrants could be expanded, but you get the dreary picture. So Saddam Hussein's fate, however inelegant, turns out to be unique. Indeed, Saddam was the only mass murderer in recent memory tried by a constitutional government's court, with counsel and a right to cross-examine witnesses, then convicted, sentenced, and punished relatively swiftly.

Why, then, blame the nascent democracy in Iraq--and the United States--for his conviction, however clumsy and crass the execution? After all, most of the European, Asian, and Arab countries lamenting his end have aided, harbored, let go, or failed to convict murderers every bit as bad or worse.

Of course, there is the old tired hypocrisy. The world's sole superpower, the United States--and everyone associated with it--is always held to a different standard from the United Nations, or a France, China, and Saudi Arabia. So in our present Orwellian world, allowing hecklers at Saddam's execution is apparently far worse than protecting Idi Amin or ignoring Radko Mladic hiding in the Balkans.

But there is an even more disturbing paradox--the very moral contradictions of contemporary international justice itself. In today's leisured world it is apparently better to be inactively perfect than actively good.

When the world conveniently doesn't save the millions of innocents who are collectively butchered by a Bokassa, Amin, Pol Pot, Karadzic, Mladic, Milosevic, the Hutu thugs, or those now in Darfur, the paralyzed international community often feels downright bad. But never quite bad enough to have risked blood and treasure to hunt them down, to enter into the messy arena of a publicized trial, and to endure sanctimonious criticism to ensure them a fair enough, but never quite flawless, justice. To paraphrase Aristotle, most find it instead far easier to be ethical in their sleep.

To reconcile this embarrassing divide between theoretical justice and messy action, the new global moral majority on the sidelines feels better by harping at the rare others who attempt what they, the ashamed, don't dare.

So last month, the infant and imperfect Iraqi democracy that tried--not the horrendous old Saddam Hussein who murdered--found itself on trial.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and author, most recently, of "A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War." You can reach him by e-mailing

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