Saddam’s end, part 2: the weasel comments
Comments on the hanging of Saddam Hussein from around the world, especially from the principal invaders and occupiers of Iraq, have set new records in queasy weasel-wordism. The test to be applied is how far each pronouncement avoids comment on the one main substantial issue (A: Was the hanging itself a valid act of justice, leaving aside the view one takes of capital punishment generally, but taking into account the circumstances of the trial, the moral legitimacy of those responsible for the death sentence and its execution, and the likely political effects of the hanging?), instead taking refuge behind a comment on a far less important and less controversial issue (B: Were the circumstances of the hanging appropriate, including the dreadful slowness of the proceedings, the exchanges of abuse between the hangmen and the prisoner right up to the moment of the latter's death, and the decision to perform the hanging at the beginning of a major Islamic sacred festival?). Some comments even sheltered behind the aspect which barely raises an issue at all (C: Should one or more of those present at the hanging have filmed it on mobile telephones and revealed the truth about it by putting the film on the Web?).
The British Foreign Secretary, Mrs Margaret Beckett, seemed initially to be tackling Issue A, the only difficult one, but then to be perversely offering the answer Yes:
"I welcome the fact that Saddam Hussein has been tried by an Iraqi court for at least some of the appalling crimes he committed against the Iraqi people. He has now been held to account.
"The British government does not support the use of the death penalty, in Iraq or anywhere else. We advocate an end to the death penalty worldwide, regardless of the individual or the crime.
"We have made our position very clear to the Iraqi authorities, but we respect their decision as that of a sovereign nation." (BBC News, 30 Dec 2006; my emphasis)
Calling the hanging of a man "holding him to account" surely deserves its shoddy place in the annals of euphemism. But having later seen and heard the less bold (and certainly less perverse) comments of other dignitaries, including those by several of her ministerial colleagues, her department, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, belatedly homed in on the obvious doddle — Issue C — but then proceeded to get even that one wrong, condemning those responsible for letting the world know the full horror of what actually happened, with the implication that it would all have been all right if only we hadn't known about it:
The Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, who was criticised by some MPs for not initially condemning the manner of the execution [! — BLB], has also hardened her line. 'The Iraq government are looking into it, but we agree with John Prescott that the use of video images [of Saddam] was unacceptable,' said a senior Foreign Office source. (The Observer, 7 Jan 07, my emphasis)
However, Gordon Brown, prime minister-in-waiting, and shrewder than the hapless Mrs Beckett or her senior Foreign Office source, cannily — good word for a Scot, especially this Scot — carved out a distinctive position for himself, establishing a perceptible distance between himself and his colleagues, by making an unexceptionable comment on Issue B (no, the manner of the killing was not appropriate, as everyone without exception has been forced to agree) while also clearly implying the bolder and more honourable verdict on Issue A: no, the hanging was not an act of justice and its political effects will be disastrous:
[Gordon] Brown said: 'Now that we know the full picture of what happened we can sum this up as a deplorable set of events. It has done nothing to lessen tensions between the Shia and Sunni communities. Even those people, unlike me, who are in favour of capital punishment found this completely unacceptable.' He hoped lessons would be learnt 'as we learn other lessons about Iraq.' (The Observer, 7 Jan 07)
(Don't you love that parting shot about learning the 'other lessons about Iraq'?)
The Iraqi government has understandably insisted that the answer to A is 'Yes' and admitted that the answer to B must be 'No', while also answering 'No' to C — and arresting the witnesses suspected of filming the event, not the executioners who converted it into a ghoulish circus.
Those who have chosen the easy way out by condemning only the manner in which the execution was carried out might usefully be challenged to describe what would have satisfied them as an acceptable 'manner' of killing this man, after a farcical show trial, at least in part at the behest of his country's illegal invaders: reverent silence on the part of the hangmen, a blubbering Saddam, and no cameras, presumably.
Those who filmed the proceedings and then made the record public for all the world to see should surely be given medals, not punished. And a specially uncomfortable place should be reserved in purgatory for those political leaders who have shirked the only defensible answer to A: No, this was not a valid act of justice, on at least ten cogent grounds, none of them dependent on a general objection to capital punishment: for those ten grounds, please see my previous Ephems entry on this subject, 'Saddam's end: yes, it was an atrocity' (and don't miss the sometimes steamy comments on it). Any bets on whether Tony Blair's eventual comments, promised within the next few days, will face up to Issue A and give it an honest answer? I fear that the odds against are long.
By their comments ye shall know them.