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Posted April 14, 2003
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A Tyrant Disappears. So Who Feels Safe?





LONDON — The statues were toppled, the portraits defaced, the palaces stripped of their finery. But it was never going to be quite enough.

For Iraqis truly to start over, said many who had witnessed the end of tyranny elsewhere, there would have to be a body to display — figuratively at least — an identifiable relic of Saddam Hussein to symbolize the collapse his power.

"I think an important word is closure," said Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford scholar who closely followed the collapse of Communist dictatorship in eastern Europe. "The people really have to have the sense that the old regime has gone and a new one has begun."

Those who have suffered the humiliation of dictatorship, in other words, must in turn humble the oppressor, and know that the once absolute power of the despot's carefully crafted mythology has been stripped away. Arguably, that function was served in part by the wild looting of post-combat Baghdad that focused on the very emblems of the once untouchable status of the regime — the government ministries and private villas and gilded palaces.

But lawlessness does not equal catharsis. "Until the body of Saddam is handed up, dead or alive," The Guardian, a British newspaper, commented late last week, "until the specter of Saddam is finally exorcized, many Iraqis will have trouble believing they are really free."

Of course, dictators themselves, perhaps more than anyone, understand the significance of their own totems and symbols. Deep in his bunker in Berlin in 1945, Adolf Hitler ordered an aide to incinerate him with gasoline to prevent his body from falling into the hands of a vengeful Red Army (though some said part of his skull survived and was presented to Josef Stalin).

In Romania in 1989, Nicolae Ceaucescu did not flee his enraged people fast enough and was lined up against a wall and summarily executed along with his wife, Elena, just as Benito Mussolini and his mistress Claretta Petacci had suffered the final humiliation in Milan in 1945.

Yet, in Iraq, there was perhaps a more complex dynamic. Not just many Iraqis but also the United States wanted to draw a final line — beneath "regime change," beneath the ambiguities of the past when Washington supported Mr. Hussein against Iran, beneath America's own humiliation in bombing Afghanistan only to fail in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

That, perhaps, was one reason the American military hastened last week to drop four 2,000-pound bombs on a residential area of Baghdad where it believed Mr. Hussein to be hiding, only to create a huge crater and subsequent avowals from Torie Clarke, the Pentagon spokeswoman, that she had not been losing too much sleep over whether the bombs killed Mr. Hussein or not.


A society starting over needs to know the past is gone and the future has begun.


Such an ambiguous end to tyranny is hardly what the world has striven for since the end of the cold war. Indeed, many eminent people have spent many hours in studying the escape routes from a history of oppression offered variously by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990's or the current trial of Slobodan Milosevic in the Hague or the flight of Mobutu Sese Seko from Zaire.

Common to their conclusions is the notion that the source of evil — be it apartheid or kleptocracy or genocidal dictatorship — must be identified, confronted and penalized so that its revival becomes impossible.

Every dictatorship, though, is distinctive and finds its distinctive end. Mengistu Haile Mariam fled Ethiopia in 1991 to take up exiled residence in Zimbabwe, courtesy of Robert Mugabe who, it turned out, needed no lessons in oppression. Uganda's Idi Amin, pleading Islamic solidarity, fled to Saudi Arabia in 1979. The deposed Shah of Iran, Mohammed Riza Pahlevi, died in an Egyptian military hospital, an embittered international outcast 18 months after being driven from his throne by Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979.

And no post-tyrannical proscription has escaped criticism.

The Nuremberg war trials of the Nazi elite in the late 1940's, for instance, failed to purge Germany's postwar administration of former supporters of Hitler, said Mr. Garton Ash, paving the way for the protests of a subsequent generation that the so-called de-Nazification of German society had not gone far enough.

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission was accused by some of apartheid's victims of giving amnesty to the perpetrators of racist violence without offering reparations to its victims, leaving a festering wound for the future. A similar tribunal in Chile was dismissed by its critics as a whitewash of the government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Summary justice by bomb or bullet has its critics too, particularly in Iraq: If the method of drawing a line under Mr. Hussein is merely to spit on his cadaver, these critics say, then a political tradition begun by people like the former tyrant himself with the coups of the 1950's and 1960's will merely have been perpetuated.

"I certainly don't think that these people should just be executed," said Mr. Garton Ash. "Saddam Hussein should be put on trial in The Hague, or at least put some senior figures of the Saddam Hussein regime on trial in the Hague."

Those figures might include such ever-elusive Baathist stalwarts and loyalists of Mr. Hussein as Tariq Ali, Izzat Ibrahim and Taha Yassin Ramadan, not to mention Mr. Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay, who all dropped even further out of sight during the bombing of Iraq.


Mussolin's fate left Italians in no doubt about Fascism's fate.


Beyond them, though, stood legions of Baathist loyalists only too willing in the long years of Mr. Hussein's rule to serve the dictatorship, just as the Nazi regime spread its tentacles throughout German society.

And what is there to do about them? Is the definitive end of a dictator really the end of dictatorship's evil? "When one individual is prosecuted for the broader crimes of a state, then with their personal guilt and incarceration the slate can be wiped clean," the British historian Tristram Hunt wrote in a newspaper article last year. "By focusing guilt on the single individual, war crimes tribunals skew the historical picture, absolving the mass of silent, willing executioners."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Week in Review, of April 13, 2003., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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