Saddam mural photo by Bakkster
Saddam has been sentenced to death. I’m not all for the death penalty, but he and his sons terrorized his own people (and now they have to do it themselves). Saddam was (hopefully) the last consciously Stalinist tyrant, using fear and a vicious security force to cow an entire nation. He wasn’t insane and at one point many in the Arab world held out hope for him, but he ultimately stepped too far. It is good that he was deposed, but that has proved far from a silver bullet for Iraq. Due to a completely botched occupation, there are now about 3,000 people a month dying there and the war is – by most accounts – a failure. Saddam’s head is some consolation, but not much. It’s like sinking the 8 ball prematurely. If you don’t get the other pieces in you’ve still lost the game. Regardless, Saddam was a very cruel and destructive human being. I don’t get any pleasure out of his death, but it’s good that he’s received some justice.
There’s a lot more written on Saddam, the PBS Frontline piece is pretty comprehensive, and Wikipedia is Wikipedia. My favorite article, however, is by Mark Bowden in The Atlantic. It’s a very well written generally and has a couple real gems. This, for example, is a source talking about the tribal mentality that pervades so much of the old world.
“Okay. Here is a village.” On the right half of the page al-Bazzaz wrote a V and beneath it he drew a collection of separate small squares. “These are houses or tents,” he said. “Notice there are spaces between them. This is because in the villages each family has its own house, and each house is sometimes several miles from the next one. They are self-contained. They grow their own food and make their own clothes. Those who grow up in the villages are frightened of everything. There is no real law enforcement or civil society. Each family is frightened of each other, and all of them are frightened of outsiders. This is the tribal mind. The only loyalty they know is to their own family, or to their own village. Each of the families is ruled by a patriarch, and the village is ruled by the strongest of them. This loyalty to tribe comes before everything. There are no values beyond power. You can lie, cheat, steal, even kill, and it is okay so long as you are a loyal son of the village or the tribe. Politics for these people is a bloody game, and it is all about getting or holding power.”
Al-Bazzaz wrote the word “city” atop the left half of the page. Beneath it he drew a line of adjacent squares. Below that he drew another line, and another. “In the city the old tribal ties are left behind. Everyone lives close together. The state is a big part of everyone’s life. They work at jobs and buy their food and clothing at markets and in stores. There are laws, police, courts, and schools. People in the city lose their fear of outsiders, and take an interest in foreign things. Life in the city depends on cooperation, on sophisticated social networks. Mutual self-interest defines public policy. You can’t get anything done without cooperating with others, so politics in the city becomes the art of compromise and partnership. The highest goal of politics becomes cooperation, community, and keeping the peace. By definition, politics in the city becomes nonviolent. The backbone of urban politics isn’t blood, it’s law.”
I think there’s an almost mathematical correlation between levels of anonymity and rule of law. When it comes to close quarters people want the more natural order of family and ‘aney machang you know me’. In a city where you don’t know everyone, however, you need institutions and rule of law. This is something I wrote about as Critical Masshole, the point where group loyalty overrides rule of law.
The Paradox of Power
This, however, is the excerpt I liked most. It describes the curious situation where more power and money just gives you less freedom. Or, as Biggie said, more money more problems. I’ve always thought that the goal was some kind of freedom, but it seems that the near your destination the more you’re slip sliding away.
Saddam is a loner by nature, and power increases isolation. A young man without power or money is completely free. He has nothing, but he also has everything. He can travel, he can drift. He can make new acquaintances every day, and try to soak up the infinite variety of life. He can seduce and be seduced, start an enterprise and abandon it, join an army or flee a nation, fight to preserve an existing system or plot a revolution. He can reinvent himself daily, according to the discoveries he makes about the world and himself. But if he prospers through the choices he makes, if he acquires a wife, children, wealth, land, and power, his options gradually and inevitably diminish. Responsibility and commitment limit his moves. One might think that the most powerful man has the most choices, but in reality he has the fewest. Too much depends on his every move. The tyrant’s choices are the narrowest of all. His lifeâ€”the nation!â€”hangs in the balance. He can no longer drift or explore, join or flee. He cannot reinvent himself, because so many others depend on himâ€”and he, in turn, must depend on so many others. He stops learning, because he is walled in by fortresses and palaces, by generals and ministers who rarely dare to tell him what he doesn’t wish to hear. Power gradually shuts the tyrant off from the world. Everything comes to him second or third hand. He is deceived daily. He becomes ignorant of his land, his people, even his own family. He exists, finally, only to preserve his wealth and power, to build his legacy. Survival becomes his one overriding passion. So he regulates his diet, tests his food for poison, exercises behind well-patrolled walls, trusts no one, and tries to control everything.
Saddam has become almost a pathetic figure, a South Park punchline. However, the massive cock-up that is Iraq may still have some lessons in it. I dunno what they are. I thought Saddam was evil enough that eliminating him couldn’t reveal anything worse, but the colossal mismanagement by the Bush Admin has done just that. So I guess I was wrong. It’s good that he has to pay for his crimes of the past, but I wonder who’ll pay for the myriad crimes of today.