Monday, January 01, 2007
To the bitterest end. posted by Richard SeymourI am not satisfied with what I wrote about Hussein's killing the other day. Of course, it's right that this is not an appropriate moment for triumph, nor can there be much pity for Hussein himself. There were not glorious celebrations in Baghdad for a staged lynching during Eid, but nor were there mass protests, because of the degraded political stature of Hussein as a mass murderer and comprador leader who was happy to seek the support of whichever imperialist would help him retain power, and because he is almost universally despised and discredited in Iraq. And of course, Hussein's death pales in significance compared to the regime of terror suffered by Iraqis daily.
Yet, the spectacle has been grotesque, and there is no other word for it. There was no point in executing Saddam Hussein, and a specific evil was perpetrated by allowing it to happen under an occupation more murderous than Hussein himself, following a trial so preposterous that even Human Rights Watch had to cry foul. There was certainly no point in staging such a grotesque execution, filming it, disseminating pictures of the corpse, and inciting a funereal parade of pig ignorant, triumphalist commentary. Or was there?
Colonial hangings are traditionally an assertion of rule, an attempt to humiliate the society and intimidate other societies who may attempt to resist. Donald Kagan, father of Robert, wrote a couple of years ago that, while there was much concern about what the "Arab street" might do if America invaded Iraq, "the Arab street has gotten very, very quiet since we started blowing things up." Well, the symbolic humiliation and killing of a leader is designed to have a similar effect. The message is that the leaders of Iran or Venezuela or Haiti or anywhere else could also find themselves being driven from power and into hiding, dragged from a hole, beaten, filmed while being checked for lice, photographed in their underpants, processed through a pathetic trial and then killed in front of the whole world. It's motive nothing to do with the actual or alleged crimes of the leader being hanged.
Of course, the hanging also takes place within a carefully constructed mythical space known as 'American exceptionalism'. As Lila Rajiva points out, within this structure, American violence is either understood as martyrdom and heroism or (when the victims are understood to be innocent) as bureacratic error and anomaly. Since hanging can't be described in the latter terms, the choice of who to lynch takes account of how apt the person is for their execution to sustain that mythology. The trial and execution is inscribed into the mythology of a titanic struggle between good and evil, and indeed the drawn-out 'legal' process was a crucial supporting narrative in that struggle. Hence, the inane babble about how much Americans have 'sacrificed' for Iraqis.
But there is also expiation. Saddam Hussein died in order that we may forget and absolve Western crimes. Not only those that involved supporting and egging on Saddam during his most criminal phase of the 1980s, but the whole damned lot. I mean to say, any information that disrupts the story of America as first innocent guardian of the peace, and then liberator, was to be asphyxiated. American crimes, precisely by being subsumed into the war with evil, are effaced: they are no longer crimes. And so, by spinning this yarn with its strict one-sided morality, and its sharp terminus, the sins of the West were to be redeemed. Sunni insurgents and 'fundemantalists' didn't make Hussein a martyr, nor did any quality he possessed himself do that: Washington did it.
No one is surprised any more that 90% of Iraqis say it was better under Saddam Hussein. It is taken by official ideologists as a reason to escalate the war, as a sign of what kind of shapeshifting evil 'we' are up against. The occupation has: killed hundreds of thousands; destroyed towns and cities and huge portions of the infrastructure; raised for the first time the serious prospect of sectarian civil war; resulted in a drastic rise in rape (by criminals, but also by prison wardens, troops, mercenaries etc) and a huge demotion in the status of women; processed thousands of prisoners through a regime of terror deploying every filthy method of torture from electrocution, to tearing portions of flesh, to 'Palestinian hanging', to sexual humiliation. These are the uncontroversial facts of the occupation, and yet they are somehow to reside within the myth of invading American armies of feminists, democrats and human rights advocates. So, the crimes of the occupiers are awarded to Hussein (whose supporters, after all, are alleged to be behind the resistance), and he is duly tried and punished for them. Hussein died for Western crimes and not his own, taking the burden of all the villainies and tyranny of the occupation, so that yet another 'milestone' could be passed. So that almost four years of matchless brutality could be a 'comma' in Iraqi history, in Bush's pitiless, pious logic. So that American state personnel could speak of a 'surge' in Iraq, to finish off evil, to redeem the martyrdom of 3,000 American troops, to ensure that God's gift to the world thrives first in Iraq.