As I Please

Commentary by Tom Gregg       December 18, 2003

The Fantasy of a Fair Trial

I wasn’t particularly surprised to learn that the head of the Vatican’s “Justice and Peace” office had some kind words for Saddam Hussein in the wake of the tyrant’s capture by US troops. "I felt pity to see this man destroyed,” said Cardinal Renato Martino. "Seeing him like this, a man in his tragedy, despite all the heavy blame he bears, I have compassion for him." 

We can probably take it for granted that Cardinal Martino, a liberal cleric renowned for his anti-Americanism, has never expressed much pity or compassion for Saddam’s unnumbered victims. But now that the dictator is sitting in a cell, we may be sure that His Eminence and many other people of progressive temperament will be wringing their hands over his plight. Specifically, they will decry the possibility that the deposed dictator might not get a “fair trial.” They will remind us that if the “process” is not seen to be “legitimate,” then the “world community” will not accept a guilty verdict.

All this seems reasonable enough. Is it not the responsibility of Saddam’s captors to accord him the customary protections of the law? Should he not enjoy the right to counsel, the right to present evidence in his defense, the right to cross-examine the witnesses against him? Should he not, indeed, be presumed innocent until proven guilty?

But just for a moment,  let’s forget about "the rule of law." Of Saddam Hussein’s guilt, there can be no doubt at all in the mind of any rational person. Listen carefully and you can hear the cries of his victims, rising from the mass graves that disfigure the landscape of Iraq. If you explained to the dead—or to their grieving parents, wives, husbands, children—that the man who murdered them is to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, how do you think they would respond? 

Cardinal Martino, a man of postmodern religious sensibilities, might preach that since the dead are mute, they can tell us nothing. But on the other hand, His Eminence intimates that the television images of Saddam in captivity—defeated, brought low, submitting meekly to the probes of a US Army medic—testify to America’s lack of magnanimity. Let the dead bury the dead, he seems to say , and let the memory of Saddam's crimes fade from our minds. Only then might it be possible to give him a “fair trial.” 

If this is what the Cardinal demands, he is sure to be disappointed--though the forms of a fair trial will surely be observed. There will be judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, witnesses, evidence, exhibits, objections, rulings from the bench and, at the end of the process, a verdict. All this will take weeks, if not months. But since we already know what that verdict will be, why bother?

To that question there is a simple answer: because the dead cry out for justice.

Usually, of course, they don't get it. Most mass-murdering dictators die quietly in their beds, and the world soon forgets about their persecutions, massacres, torture chambers and death camps. But when the Butcher of Baghdad goes on trial, the mechanisms of the legal process will serve to establish a formal, undeniable record of his crimesand a fitting epithet for the nameless multitudes who lie but do not rest in the mass graves of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Copyright © 2003 by Thomas M. Gregg