Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Who hung the monkey?

The trial and execution Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity reminds me of a story I heard years ago from a Brit living in the north of England.

The Brit lived in County Durham, and he was having fun with a lad from Hartlepool, also in the north. The story is apocryphal, but instructive. It seems that during the Napoleanic Wars, a French man-of-war floundered and sank in the North Sea. The only survivor was the ship's mascot, a monkey dressed in a smaller sailor's uniform. The hapless primate floated to Hartlepool's beaches, where it was seized by vigilant fishermen.

Now the good people of Hartlepool had never seen a Frenchman, much less had any insight to French culture or language. But they were, above all, loyal to the crown, so they tried the monkey as a spy, found him guilty, and sentence it to hang. "Who hung the monkey?" has become, I'm guessing, a good natured dig at anyone from Hartlepool.

I can't draw any direct lines from this story to the hanging of Saddam without wondering "Who is the monkey?" Is it Saddam, caught up in the frenzy of war? Or are Americans "the monkey", surrounded by captors unschooled in Western ways of justice and order? But one thing is certain: bringing Saddam to justice in the way it happened created more problems than it solved.

In the administration's defense, there probably wasn't a better way for US occupational authorities to have handled Saddam's trial and execution. We have no business being involved, and as long as we are, it's foolish to apply Western standards of decorum and fairness to Iraq's judicial system. We should feel lucky that Saddam wasn't buried inside a pig carcass, or wearing a frilly burka when the trap door fell. That's the difference between the West and Iraq, where memories are as old as the ruins of old Mesopotamia, and reconciliation is another word for suicide pact.

Compare Saddam's trial to Adolph Eichmann's, the Nazi monster brought to justice in 1960 by Israeli Mossad agents. Israel is also a mideast country, albeit one settled by Europeans. Eichmann was arguably more evil than Saddam, but his trial was marked more by its healing qualities than outbursts. The Eichmann Trial, which was televised, helped both Holocaust survivors and a shaken Europe come to terms with the Holocaust. That's no small accomplishment. Iraqis would have benefitted in the same way by keeping Saddam alive long enough to recount more of his crimes, and hopefully bring Sunni, Shia and Kurd closer to a shared understanding of the last 30 years. Should the US have had a role in making that happen? Tough call.

It's easy to talk about foreign policy realism, and the futility of the neo-con approach. But realism carries a rather ugly price - writing off huge swathes of humanity as "too tribal" or "too shame-based" to conform to the modern world. An honest rejection of neo-con bufoonery will also recognize the futility of bringing order and justice to countries like Iraq, and the millions of people stuck there who truly want a better life.

Ideally, bringing freedom and enlightenment to the world would involve modeling good behavior, but without the residue of resentment that comes with military conquest and occupation. Ask the monkey, whoever it is.

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