Judging monsters

Some crimes will never be set right.  Some criminals can never receive their proper measure of justice.  The capacity for evil far exceeds every community’s ability to punish the evil-doer.

Today, by custom and law, our punishments tend to mildness and forgiveness, but even in harsher eras the human imagination struggled ineffectively to match crime and punishment.  Dante, the epitome of the Middle Ages and largely devoid of tender scruples, placed the two men he considered most evil in the history of the species, Judas and Brutus, in the mouth of Satan, where they were to be chewed like gum for eternity.  Any tinpot dictator has inflicted worse.

Moral monsters who devour whole nations and peoples, in this sense, stand beyond the pale of justice.  Even when, like Saddam Hussein, they are brought to trial, the disproportion between the misery they have inflicted and the worst that can be done to them leaves everyone feeling helpless and uneasy.

Saddam himself, of course, feels anything but.  He is directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, up to a million Iranians, an untold number of Kuwaitis, and a couple of thousand Americans, but he is described as “defiant” in the face of his accusers, who were once his victims. Here is a sure symptom of the moral monster:  the self-righteousness of evil.

The obvious fact that justice is unattainable has stimulated a bizarre chorus of proceduralists, who fret and critique about this or that inappropriate step in the process, or about the purity of heart of the prosecutors.  Taken literally, these people would be hard to fathom.  Can any procedure or frame of mind erase the monstrousness of the crime?   It’s as if they imagined this trial to be an episode of Perry Mason, with the real culprit, preferably someone like James Baker or Henry Kissinger, confessing under cross-examination:  “It wasn’t Saddam at all – he just wanted to build schools and hospitals!”

Then one remembers these protests aren’t to be taken literally, but as part of an eternal equation.  Whenever moral monsters have done their work, the morally blind have praised and protected and justified them.

So what’s the best that can be expected of this televised ordeal?  I think Anne Applebaum in the WaPo has the right idea:  if some of the humble witnesses to Saddam’s evil have the courage to confront him, and tell their story to the world, something will have been gained, and some moral balance restored.  Applebaum writes:

Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter whether Saddam Hussein is drawn and quartered, exiled to Pyongyang, or left to rot in a Baghdad prison. No punishment could make up for the thousands he killed, or for the terror he inflicted on his country.

But if his Sunni countrymen learn what he did to Shiites and Kurds, if the Shiites and Kurds learn what he did to Sunnis, if Iraqis come to realize that his system of totalitarian terror damaged them all, and if others in the Middle East learn that dictatorships can be overthrown, then the trial will have served its purpose. That, and not an arbitrary standard of international law, is how the success of this unusual tribunal should be measured.

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