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Celebrity Carnage

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Bob Koehler
"He spent the rest of the day working to pull the dead bodies of his family from the rubble of his home, finally reaching his dead son at 4:00 p.m."

- Human Rights Watch, in a 2003 report on the U.S. air war in Iraq and the campaign to execute Baathist leadership with high explosives

Saddam's execution last week was, for the war's apologists, a merciful respite from the chaos and humiliation of this catastrophe and a chance for one last swig of moral clarity - the Butcher is dead! the Butcher is dead! - which, in the Bush era, costs about a trillion dollars a shot.

Few in the mainstream media were willing to be party poopers and point this out, of course, or mention anything, in their pseudo-serious coverage of Saddam's career, about his long, complex involvement with the U.S. foreign-policy establishment going back to the Reagan administration, as both ally and extremely useful enemy.

The Washington Post, for instance, as it told readers about the man "whose fall unleashed a turbulent era for his nation and the world," even seems to have forgotten that the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, precipitating this fall. Oh well, that was almost four years ago.

But the craven delicacy of such reportage makes it difficult for me to have any reaction at all to Saddam's hanging. Why shoehorn his brutality into a false perspective? He was a monster. He "gassed his own people," as we were reminded repeatedly in the run-up to the invasion. He invaded Iran. Yet ultimately the murder of several hundred thousand Kurds in the late 1980s, or the mind-numbing death toll in Iran, didn't even figure into the trial.

"Who encouraged Saddam to invade Iran in 1980, which was the greatest war crime he has committed for it led to the deaths of a million and a half souls?" Robert Fisk wrote in the UK's Independent. "And who sold him the components for the chemical weapons with which he drenched Iran and the Kurds? We did. No wonder the Americans, who controlled Saddam's weird trial, forbade any mention of this, his most obscene atrocity, in the charges against him."

Well, this taints the moral clarity. Stripped of context, what we're left with is a gaudy bit of celebrity carnage that no doubt succeeded in making Saddam a martyr among his supporters - 68 Shiites died in a series of revenge bombings within hours of the execution - but beyond that changed nothing.

It was a triumph of barbarism, a.k.a., victors' justice, hastily carried out on the eve of Eid al-Adha, the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice and holy day of forgiveness. The legal charade that preceded it, under the control of the occupying coalition, had no international legitimacy.

At least Saddam's execution itself resulted in only one death. Back in the spring of '03, when the invasion was in its cakewalk phase, when the maw of moral relativism - this is war, freedom isn't free - was wide open and we had a lot of civilian deaths we could spend before subjecting ourselves to any second-guessing, we sacrificed innocent Iraqis to the cause of eliminating Saddam with horrific impunity.

Our willy-nilly attempts to "decapitate" Saddam's regime with bunker busters was only a small part of the shock-and-awe bombing campaign that sowed death and depleted-uranium dust (a cancer-causing, DNA-altering time bomb) throughout Iraq. But in the wake of Saddam's execution, I can't help but meditate on these earlier attempts to kill him and the hypocrisy of our rectitude about finally succeeding.

"The United States used an unsound targeting methodology largely reliant on imprecise coordinates obtained from satellite phones," the Human Rights Watch report (available at www.hrw.org/reports/2003/usa1203/4.htm) informed us, describing our clumsy obsession with bringing about Saddam's death or capture no matter who was in the way.

"Of the 50 aerial strikes against Iraqi leaders," the report said, "not one resulted in the death of the intended target. Yet in four strikes researched by Human Rights Watch, 42 civilians were killed and dozens more were injured."

The dead, of course, included many children and infants, as well as women and elderly. I would ask those of you who still support this war and believe we should "stay the course" - and who are gloating over Saddam's execution - to judge our own slaughter of innocents by the same standards we used against the poster boy of evil, who was convicted of killing 148 people.

We may not be worse, but we're no better. When do we take our turn in the dock?

- - -

Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
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