Trial of Sadaam Hussein should take more than just the man into account

Within hours of the capture of Sadaam Hussein controversy erupted regarding the location and control of his forthcoming trial. Although these issues are jurisdictionally important, I believe that they are less important than what is said at the trial. This trial can be a worldwide public platform for a much-needed global discussion of how dictatorships cause oppression, genocide, terrorism and war. Although this causal connection has been made before, for some it apparently needs to be made again.

The rule of Sadaam Hussein is essentially one more reminder of the worst political mistake of the 20th Century: The failure of democracies to prevent the rise of genocidal dictators. Dictators, through wars, mass killings, sponsored terrorism and genocide, are ultimately responsible for the deaths of 160 million people over a 100-year period. At the beginning of the 21st Century dictators still rule numerous countries and close to two billion people. The industrialized democracies need to finish what was begun in the last century: The elimination of all dictatorships on the planet. If we don't do this, we can look forward to at least another century of mass violent death caused by dictators.

The rationale for renewed dedication to dictator removal can be made explicitly at the Hussein trial. Most current Americans and western Europeans have never lived under dictators, and therefore the connection between dictators and atrocities might be unclear. Hussein followed a typical antisocial path to power, and once in power he initiated the full range of dictatorial antisocial behaviors. He was initially a thug, then a gang leader, an assassin, and finally a dictator. He initiated two wars (against Iran and Kuwait), imprisoned, tortured and summarily executed tens of thousands of his own people, sponsored terrorist activities outside of Iraq, and perpetrated genocide on the Kurds and Shias.

However, Hussein did not personally murder anywhere from 300,000 to one million people. In Iraq, as in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and numerous other dictatorships, mass murder was bureaucratically systematized through numerous organizational layers. Thousands of individuals far removed from Hussein and his inner circle usually did the actual killing.

Therefore prosecutors should not just focus on Hussein's psychopathic personality. Rather, the system that he established (and eventually all the individuals connected to it) should be put on trial. By focusing on the system, prosecutors could address at least two larger questions. One, how did a punk like Hussein come to control the resources of an entire country? Answering this question could lead to a discussion of the cultural and institutional roadblocks needed to prevent the malevolent evolution from thug to dictator. Two, what cultural, organizational and group factors in Hussein's Iraq conditioned normal individuals, with the usual inhibitions about killing, to become remorseless killers of innocents? The Hussein trial could provide a global discussion of these questions and others, which apply not just to the Hussein regime, but also more generally to all dictatorships.

A public exploration of dictatorships and atrocities could lead to several renewed lessons. One, the longer a dictator is in power the more likely he is to perpetrate oppression and atrocities on his own people and war on others. Two, the longer a dictator is in power the more difficult it is to remove him from power, and the removal cost in lives and resources increases. Three, the "lesser of two evils" strategy can no longer be used. In the Cold War (and even now) the United States has allied with certain dictatorships due to perceived national interest. This amoral practice of "situational politics" ultimately increases the cost of dictator removal when removal time comes. Four, forcible dictator removal must always be combined with subsequent nation building. Dictatorships perpetuate poverty and illiteracy and they lack the rule of law and other democratic institutions. If these conditions are not corrected, dictatorships return.

The world has not witnessed a highly publicized airing of systematic dictatorial atrocities since the trial of Adolph Eichmann, over 40 years ago. Eichmann was an SS bureaucrat in charge of transporting victims to extermination camps. His trial exposed the complex bureaucracy that supported the systematic slaughter of innocents. After the Eichmann trial very few rational people denied the Holocaust, or the connection between the Nazi dictatorship and genocide. A similar and perhaps more general point can be made at the Hussein trial: All dictatorships have the same antisocial tendencies, they are all malignancies on the fabric of human societies, and therefore none of them can be tolerated. This is the lesson of Hitler renewed and applied on a global scale.

Dr. Anthony Stahelski is the Director of the Organization Development Program at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.


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