Saddam Hussein

The execution of Saddam Hussein has been widely heralded as a turning point in the war in Iraq, if not the central point at which democracy might be established. Gruesome images and videos of the public hanging stirred the Iraqi public and shocked viewers and readers around the world. Most of the mainstream media from Great Britain and the United States, the two nations most heavily vested in establishing pro-Western democratic governments in Iraq, presented the event as a major victory. Like killing the bad guy in an action flick, executing Saddam Hussein was depicted as the fulfillment of a central goal of the war. Therefore, the execution served a central purpose in promoting propaganda: in generating and maintaining support for the war. On a propaganda level alone the execution marked a turning point. Images of joyful Iraqis celebrating in the streets enhanced the notion that the death of Saddam meant the birth of freedom in Iraq. Moreover, Saddam Hussein’s execution served a solid symbolic function. It was as if the Wicked Witch of the East was melting and Dorothy could finally return home. One of the most potent symbols of tyranny in the modern world, Saddam Hussein, was no more. The execution, which was decried by many nations that do not support capital punishment, meant that the primary emblem of the Iraqi dictatorship was destroyed. Even if the execution did not extricate the root causes for tyranny in Iraq or instability in the Middle East, the execution of Saddam Hussein was in fact a major turning point in the war and paved the way for democracy.

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Even before the public hanging of Saddam Hussein, his capture was “presented by the coalition as a turning point for Iraq leading to reconciliation and political stability,” (Reynolds 2003). Thus, the symbolic function of the Iraqi dictator had been firmly established well before the execution in 2006. In fact, during the first Gulf War Saddam’s image in the public eye was solidified as an evil tyrant who single-handedly prevented the Iraqi people from living in a democratic state. Saddam Hussein had cultivated a cult of personality, too (Reynolds 2003). After twenty-five years in a position of incredible power, Saddam Hussein was larger-than-life: he became a demon. His capture was, as Reynolds (2003) notes, the first step on the road toward freedom, even if that road would be riddled with bumps, forks, and potholes. Never mind that the capture did not immediately precede the establishment of democracy in Iraq. With Saddam symbolically out of power, the whisper of democracy in Iraq was heard worldwide. President Bush beamed in press conferences, making statements like “All Iraqis can now come together and reject violence and build a new Iraq.” Footage of Iraqis rejoicing were plastered on television sets and in newspapers. The capture of Saddam Hussein also uplifted the spirits of Americans who may have wondered how successful the war effort might be in the long run, especially since support for the war was far from universal.

That the execution of Saddam Hussein might have been a turning point for establishing democracy in Iraq is poignantly ironic. For one, most democratic nations decry the death penalty. The execution of the dictator’s henchmen had also led to “a chorus of international criticism,” (“Saddam aides ‘to die this week’” 2007). The United States is one of the only remaining developed countries to continue support for capital punishment on its own shores, and thus many Americans salivated at the idea that the demonized dictator might meet a gruesome end. Opponents of capital punishment around the world criticized the method by which Saddam Hussein was tried and hung in public not because they supported the dictator or his methods but because they rooted for and integrity at all costs. Publicly hanging any human being seemed antithetical to establishing democracy, opposed to the very message the United States wanted to send to the Iraqi people and the world about its lofty intentions of liberating the Iraqi people.

Second, the execution was carried out in public. It was an old-fashioned hanging, noose and all. Any person, even Saddam Hussein, strangling in the hangman’s noose is far from being a symbol of democracy. If anything the public execution represents backwardness and barbarism: the opposite of democracy. Without a stint in the Hague, Saddam Hussein’s trial progressed like any other in Iraq. Democracy was being established on flimsy foundations in the former Mesopotamia.

Third, the trial of Saddam Hussein in Iraq instead of on international soil such as in the Hague seemed an affront to the democratic principles the United States espoused. In an interview with Democracy Now! correspondent Amy Goodman, Scott Horton speaks of “the brazen political manipulation of this trial by the Bush administration,” (2006). Many Iraqis shared the belief that the Bush administration and its lackeys in Iraq did not try Saddam fairly, in keeping with international law and rules of justice. The trial was viewed as a farce, as a puppet show in Iraq (Sabbah 2006). At the same time, the Bush administration and Iraqi officials supporting it asserted that the trial proceeded with “strict adherence to legal procedures” (Palmer 2006).

Media coverage of the execution varied but in the West mainly focused on the “fear” in Saddam’s eyes and the “celebrations” in the streets that included dancing around the dead body of the former dictator (Raman, Chilcote, Dagher, Karadsheh, & Henry 2006). Therefore, the imagery of both the capture and the execution served propaganda needs well. After his capture, the viewing public watched the dictator grow more haggard by the day. Rumors abounded as to whether the real Saddam had been captured, given his use of body doubles. The slow rotting away of Saddam Hussein’s will, the decreasing sense of determination and the increasing sense of resignation on the dictator’s face sent powerful messages to the world about the triumph of the mighty United States over the demons of the world. During the trial, American newspapers and television news shows depicted the proceedings as being emblematic of the democratic process. As fair and legal as it might have been, the trial was more for show than anything else; it seemed that the writing on the wall already spelled out the demise of the Iraqi dictator. The more haggard he looked, the more it seemed that democracy was possible in the country he held sway over for so long. His capture, trial, and execution was central in creating at least the belief that Iraq was on its way toward freedom.

The belief that democracy was possible proved more important than reality. With so few democratic states in the Middle East, Iraq was highly unlikely to suddenly sprout freedom and liberty. Core values of the country continued to irk feminists and human rights activists worldwide, and the tolerance of public hanging underscored the types of traditions Iraqi people favored. The United States was triumphant not just in helping capture, trying in court, and hanging Saddam Hussain under the watchful eye of the world. More importantly, the Bush administration and its allies enabled continued support of the war. The imagery of Saddam’s death was so powerful, so potent, so compelling that even anti-war activists were proud in spite of themselves.

As a turning point, the execution of Saddam Hussein changed public opinion of how the Untied States was doing in the war effort. The American public had long forgotten about Osama Bin Laden by the time Saddam was executed; Saddam conveniently took bin Laden’s place as the demon of the day. One of the central purposes of the execution was to create propaganda that would from fomenting, and it worked to an extent.

In Iraq, reaction to the execution was mixed. Some did indeed dance around the body “with jubilation,” (Karadsheh & Raman 2006). Others hesitated to praise the event as a turning point in the political evolution of the Iraqi people. Quoted in the U.S.A. Today, an Iraqi school teacher stated, “If it was another government who executed Saddam you would find me celebrating by dancing in the middle of the street, but unfortunately I feel so disappointed today, because this government have done every ugly thing against Iraqis in the last couple years,” (cited by Palmer 2006). Some Iraqis protested the capture and the execution, as many Iraqis continued to support Saddam Hussein and vehemently opposed the American occupation of the country. The execution left not just a leadership vacuum in Iraq but also the rift between Sunni and Shiite Muslims deepened so severely that civil war seemed inevitable. Granted, civil war does not preclude the establishment of democracy but the execution did not seem to have an immediately peaceful effect on the ravaged country.

The execution seemed to have served as a turning point more for media and propaganda purposes than for practical ones. However, any government and any society depends on propaganda to promote its core values and ideals even when those values and ideals foster freedom. Thus, the execution of Saddam Hussein did mark an important turning point in establishing democracy in Iraq if only because the event was symbolically powerful. Even if the only purpose it served was to maintain American support for the war effort, then the execution can be viewed as a turning point. Even if the execution of Saddam Hussein created the illusion that democracy was budding in Iraq then it was a turning point in the war. The execution of Saddam Hussein was a turning point in Iraq also because the event signified American military prowess. As the figurehead of democracy worldwide, the United States’ participation in the capture, trial, and execution of Saddam Hussein painted an attractive picture; Democracy triumphed over Tyranny.

President Bush certainly seemed to believe that the death of Saddam Hussein was a turning point in the war and in the fight for democracy in Iraq. The president was quoted as saying, “Bringing Saddam Hussein to justice will not end the violence in Iraq, but it is an important milestone on Iraq’s course to becoming a democracy that can govern, sustain and defend itself, and be an ally in the war on terror,” (cited by Palmer 2006). Bush also called the coalition-supported Iraqi government as a “young democracy,” (cited by Democracy Now!). Saddam’s death bolstered the image of that young democracy. With Saddam gone, it was possible to move on and rebuild the war-torn nation. Burns & Santora (2006) note that “high-ranking Shiite politicians represented the hanging as a turning point” just as Bush did. Even though no substantial, reliable, long-lasting democratic institutions have yet to be established in Iraq, the elimination of the ultimate icon of tyranny was an important milestone.

A blog, supposedly authored by an Iraqi citizen, claims “we are moving forward,” “Iraq will be built in a democratic fashion,” and “despite all the violence, carnage, and negativity, the Iraqi people continue on the path to freedom,” (Husayn 2005). Indeed, freedom and democracy would not be possible if its central icon continued to hold sway over his supporters. Gerecht (2007) is equally as optimistic, noting that “politically, Iraq is coming alive again. A Shiite-led Iraqi democracy is taking root — an astonishing achievement given the concerted efforts of the Iraqi Sunnis, and the surrounding Sunni Arab states, to attack and delegitimize the new Iraq.” Even if the current and future American administration must buttress the young democracy, the emerging form of government would in theory be preferable to the brutal regime of a dictator convicted of crimes against humanity.

One of the most promising signs that democracy is taking root is Iraq’s glorious past: a history of one of the world’s most ancient civilizations that has at times been a bastion of democratic ideals and a powerhouse of learning. As Davis (2005) notes, “Iraq has a tradition and history of democracy that can help promote the successful establishment of a democratic form of government in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.” In fact, the roots of democracy run deep in Mesopotamian soil. Furthermore, the first half of the twentieth century promised to bring another golden age to Iraq. The clerical governments post-colonization revealed “strong democratic impulses and emphasized cultural tolerance,” (Davis 2005). With democratic ideology entrenched in Iraqi culture and with the promise of continued support from the United States, Iraq does stand poised to enter a new era of freedom and democracy.

The execution of Saddam Hussein was a necessary turning point on the path toward freedom in Iraq. Although the capture, trial, and execution of the dictator was largely a propaganda ploy, its message did serve to reintroduce the Iraqi people to their roots as a democratic civilization. However, bloody the affair might be, the war in Iraq showed that the Iraqi people could depend on the support of the most powerful democracy in the world to help establish democratic institutions such as reliable legislatures, judiciaries, schools, and economic institutions. The execution’s symbolism served its purpose well.


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