Feb 1 2007

Justifying a Lynching After the Fact

Prominent legal observers and human rights groups have voiced strong criticisms of the trial and hasty execution of Saddam Hussein. NBC’s Tim Russert summed up the complaints about the trial by noting that “some people think that it could have gone longer and so forth” (Imus in the Morning, 1/3/07), though critics actually pointed to far more serious problems, like the fact that three of Hussein’s lawyers were assassinated during the proceedings (Washington Post, 6/21/06).

A January 9 New York Times article by John Burns, though, seemed to be an attempt to justify the handling of Hussein’s case. Reporting on tapes played at the continuing trial of Hussein’s co-defendants, Burns made the strange suggestion that the recordings, “seemingly eliminating any doubt about Mr. Hussein’s role in the attacks on the Kurds, may go a long way to answering criticism of the government for executing him before he was judged for the worst of his crimes.”

A key word here is “seemingly”—what tapes seem to prove is not necessarily what they actually prove; think of Colin Powell’s tapes at the United Nations that “proved” Iraq was hiding illicit weapons (Extra!, 3-4/03). More to the point, one can’t justify an execution based on evidence that wasn’t presented at trial—that’s not due process, that’s lynching.

Burns seemed to express surprise that “American justice department lawyers, who have done much of the behind-the-scenes work in sifting tons of documents and other evidence gathered after the invasion of 2003, had never hinted that they held the trump card, judicially and historically, that the audio recordings seem likely to be.” But it’s not very surprising that U.S. officials would want to withhold evidence on Saddam Hussein’s involvement in chemical warfare until after Hussein was no longer around to comment.

Iraq used chemical weapons from 1982 until 1988, during which time the Reagan administration was a close ally, going out of its way to defend the regime against criticism from Congress and the U.N. for its use of poison gas. Then-Secretary of State George Shultz personally lobbied for approval of “crop-spraying” helicopters later used to gas the Kurds, according to the CIA (Mark Pythian, Arming Iraq). And the administration worked to kill the Prevention of Genocide Act of 1988, the Senate’s response to the Halabja gas attacks (Extra!, 9-10/02).

No doubt Saddam Hussein would have brought up this awkward history were he still alive. Little chance the New York Times would, though.