Not-so-grim Satisfaction

How should one feel about the passing of a monster like Saddam? William F. Buckley, Jr., declared that

…if fornication is wrong, there is no denying that it can bring pleasure. The death of Saddam Hussein at rope’s end brings a pleasure that is undeniable, and absolutely chaste in its provenance.

Tonight my friend Dawn Eden takes issue with Buckley, noting that while the execution of Saddam was probably justified under Catholic doctrine,

…the idea that the execution is anything better than the tragically necessary killing of a man who caused immeasurable violence and repression is repugnant and unworthy of conservatism’s elder statesman.

I’m torn here. I’ve always been repelled by barbarians hanging out in front of a state prison when an execution takes place, waving frying pans to taunt the condemned. Unless the condemned murderer’s victims were friends or relatives of mine, I think the only acceptable attitude toward an execution is one of grim satisfaction. I agreed with Slate’s Timothy Noah that President–then Governor–Bush’s mocking of Karla Faye Tucker’s pleas for clemency was probably his worst public moment. I might even laugh at a coarse joke like the one he told, but not from the Governor. Not from the man whose job is to consider her fate.

Even when I read that Timothy McVeigh was dead, I permitted myself satisfaction, but no rejoicing–even though a friend of mine had her throat slashed by flying glass as a result of his handiwork.

But tonight, my satisfaction is…not particularly grim. I realize this is the sort of thing I probably ought to be ashamed to admit, but I’m pretty happy Saddam is dead. Not elated, and certainly not dancing on his grave like the families of victims are entitled to do, but pleased in the way Buckley described. Which suggests two possibilities:

I. I’m secretly every bit as boorish and barbaric as the louts with the frying pans, and I usually just do a better job of covering it up. Which is possible.


II. Saddam is different. For one thing, he was not only hideously brutal, but he was head of an army with which we are at war. He is also a proponent of a Baathist neo-Nazi armed doctrine that preaches war and the destruction of America and Israel. With his death, the ideology takes a hit as well, and that I’m unapologetically happy about.

I recently re-read Saddam’s Bombmaker, Khidir Hamza’s book about his efforts to build Saddam’s atom bomb. By the time the Gulf War rolled around, thanks to the indulgence of many greedy foreign corporations and technicians, they had one–all but the uranium to go in it, which was elsewhere. As the Allied troops gathered in Saudi Arabia, Saddam’s moron son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, came out to order Hamza and the scientists to give them the bomb so they could mount it on a warhead–and shoot it toward Israel as a doomsday device if America invaded.

The device Hamza had built, however, was far too big to fit on an Iraqi missile. Perhaps it could be dropped from a plane, but Kamel knew an Iraqi bomber had no chance of making it over Israel. The bomb was useless to them in those straits, and the inspectors came in and dismantled the program after the war. Saddam’s kamikaze plan to immolate Israel never came off.

Sort of like Haman’s, which is where I’m going with this.

Ever read the Book of Esther, about how a politician named Haman planned to kill all the Jews held captive in Persia? Haman built a gallows for the Jewish leader Mordechai, but in a great reversal of fortune, ended up hanged on his own construct. The feast of Purim commemorates the story and, to some degree, the execution of Haman. It’s a big party, with lots of drinking and celebration and its own trademark food–Hamantaschen cookies, said to resemble Haman’s hat. Now I understand it’s less a celebration of the fact that Haman died than a celebration that the Jews survived, but Haman’s death is part of the story–and part of the revelry includes cursing him and drowning out his name with noisemakers every time it’s spoken.

Another example might be Guy Fawkes Day in England. A group of terrorists plotted to blow Parliament sky-high, and the plan was prevented at the last minute. Fawkes was tortured and executed and his effigy is still joyously burned every Nov. 5th to commemorate his execution. As with Haman’s death, it’s a grim excuse for a party, but it’s a natural one. It feels all right in a way that celebrating “Tookie Williams Day” or “Gary Gilmore Day” just would never do, even though Tookie and Gilmore were monstrous murderers whose executions were just.

No, these men–Saddam, Fawkes, and Haman–were not just transgressors within a society. Each was a political criminal against a society. (Yes, all criminal cases involve crimes against “the People” or “the State”, but that’s not quite what I mean.) Osama bin Laden belongs in their number as well, as does McVeigh,now that I think about it–among those who plot murder on a vast scale as a political project. Such crimes against civilization need to be universally reviled, and their failure is cause for revelry. There is something cosmically gratifying about seeing such awful projects (even if they are successful in the short run) backfire and justice rain down upon their planners. It’s something that inspires celebration.

These arch-villains deserve a rollicking sendoff, with a double shot of coarse and raunchy scorn, because their deaths mark great victories over terror, genocide, and anarchy. They are the opposite of martyrs. They are each tyrants, or would-be tyrants, and tyrants deserve, in just recompense, the one thing they cannot bear: our mockery.

Saddam thought he would be the new Saladin, a pan-Arab strongman. By the great strivings of some great men, he instead died a common criminal. So if you have a glass of something handy, please join me in drinking Damnation to the Devil’s own, and salvation to those who sent him home!