Inside Saddam's Mouth

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
18 December 2003

What does the stunning image of Saddam’s now empty mouth after his capture reveal of the nature of his regime and its fate?

‘We have got him!’, proclaimed Paul Bremer, the American proconsul in Iraq.

But what have they got?

Personally, I had half-expected Saddam Hussein to be found and probably killed in a remote farm. For those of us who recall the 1960s, the vile conditions of the rat-hole he hid in were familiar from the Vietnam war (although the National Liberation Front was always diligent enough to build tunnels with escape routes).

But nothing prepared me for the medical inspection repeated on TV clips around the world. As the US army physician took the DNA swab he shone his medical torch into the dictator’s throat. The tyrant cooperated by opening wide. It was a moment shared by millions and surely never to be forgotten: we could see deep inside Saddam’s mouth.

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The mouth – which had spat out lives like so many fruit pips, sentenced so many to pitiless cruelty, condemned the innocent and betrayed the loyal. The mouth of death was open before us for inspection.

It was from this throat that the orders came: which were to kill nearly 200,000 Kurds in 1988, that annihilated perhaps 50,000 Sh’ia in 1991, that started the war with Iran, that initiated the invasion of Kuwait, that instructed henchmen in the arts of torture…

Here it was, opened wide for the camera.

I was delighted. It didn’t feel to me like the improper humiliation of a prisoner of war. I felt absolutely no pity. Saddam Hussein is quite beyond any regular calculation of innocence. I revelled in his reduction to ordinariness and the stripping away of illusions and myths.

What did it tell us, Saddam’s mouth?

It was empty.

This was shocking. There was nothing there, no sign of decay, no mark of exception.

Suddenly it struck me that this was the truth of Saddam Hussein. There was nothing there. There are no weapons of mass destruction that this mouth can tell us about. There is no relationship with Osama bin Laden which only it can speak of. It is not the mouth of the Iraqi nation. It is an empty void.

For thirty-five years he has been able to claim the leadership of Iraq, monopolising its television, filling its streets with his likeness, proclaiming his fatherhood of the nation. But this was no nationalist with any love of country.

The man is an idiot. He emerges from a hole in the ground and says: I am the President and I am willing to negotiate.

Apparently offered the chance to expand his grip on the northern waters of the Gulf in 1990, he instead invades and occupies the whole of Kuwait.

Given the time to withdraw, he stays.

Ordered by the UN to destroy his weapons of mass destruction, he does so but pretends he has not.

Challenged to prove compliance he prefers games when everybody can see that this is catastrophically stupid.

We think of political evil as involving skill and intelligence: the seduction of Satan, the calculations of a Machiavelli, the deceptions of a Milosevic. In some way we might even be drawn to the allure of such company, to the glamour of wickedness with its precision and audacity.

But does not such evil need two things: an understanding of the real world which it seeks to dominate, and some comprehension of the good it seeks to undermine and corrupt? In Christian mythology the Devil was cast out of heaven, but he knew heaven; the Koran’s call to eliminate evil is joined in the same verse by the injunction to promote good.

Brutal stupidity and utter indifference are appalling, but are they evil? When Saddam Hussein was confronted by four Iraqis from the Governing Council, he was asked how he would answer for his crimes and what he would say to God. He swore with contempt.

There was no remorse, simply an empty brutality.

How is it possible that a thug could hold the world stage?

We can blame oil and the huge wealth it puts into the hands of mafia-type figures with appalling taste who squander its surplus on vulgar palaces.

We can blame international support, especially American, for allowing Saddam to get so far (as Yahia Said implies in his brief meditation in this edition of openDemocracy.net).

We can reflect on the recruitment methods a Hussein uses to get his way. You ask a potential member of your inner circle if he would like to shoot someone for no reason. If he is as senseless and craven as you, he does so. He is thereby sucked into your operation. If he doesn’t and shows evidence of integrity or independent thinking, you shoot him instead. That way you build up a loyal team around you.

Iraqis now face the problem of how to build a political system which will prevent any repeat performance. It will need to personify a different, humane national spirit. Globolog reports on how another Iraqi contributor to openDemocracy.net, Yasser Alaskary, is working on the principles for just such a new constitution.

But the whole world, not just Iraqis, is entitled to take a view on what should happen now to the empty mouth.

President Bush wants him dead.

The death penalty is wrong in principle.

There are exceptions to all principles. In this case however, what is exceptional is the need to keep Hussein alive.

He killed everyone he could who showed a spark of life or integrity. If they were innocent they died. If they resisted, they were tortured. When in a cabinet meeting a minister made the modest suggestion that at some point the President might step down, the President asked him into the next room, shot him, and then went back to continue the meeting.

To argue, as George Bush did, that because Saddam killed so many he too deserves to die, is to elevate him to the status of those he condemned.

But he has none of their value.

Saddam Hussein does not deserve anything that might hint of martyrdom.

To kill him is to suggest that there is a spark of a life-force however modest that remains a threat and needs to be eradicated, residing in his breast.

There isn’t. It is empty.

He should be kept in the empty cell which is all he deserves.

Even empty symbols matter. How the Iraqi is held, charged, tried and sentenced will speak of the world the American government says it now seeks to build in its image.


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