What a "two-fer" --- starkly asymmetrical stories that raise the same moral question about ends and means.
Number one is Dick Cheney's participation in a "canned hunt" in Pennsylvania that bagged hundreds of game birds. Cheney shot 70 pheasants all by himself. How sporting. But some bloggers wonder if donating the birds to soup kitchens would make it all better.
Story number two is the capture of Saddam Hussein, the mass-murderer run to ground. US officials and military officers are pounding their chests. They promise Saddam will be given a fair and open trial in Iraq. More than most national leaders, he has plenty to answer for. And many Iraqis naturally will seek revenge for what Saddam did to them.
This is no time to gloat, however. First, the long search for Saddam showed our "intelligence" and tactics are nothing to write home about. But more important, what happens now to Saddam and his henchmen will mold the framework and set the tone for the future of the entire Middle East --- and beyond. So it must be done right.
The White House is already headed in the wrong direction, though. In his usual manner, George W. Bush rejected the proper course, as dictated by international law. He won't hear of remanding Saddam to the International Criminal Court. (Neither will he let American war criminals fall under the court's jurisdiction.) And Bush wants the death penalty on the table, just as surely as in Texas.
Meanwhile, Bush disgraced himself and the US at a recent news conference. "International law?" he said sarcastically in response to a question. "I'll have to ask my lawyer." You can bet this will make us new enemies.
But back to the prisoner-defendant.
Yes, Saddam is responsible for the deaths of huge numbers of people, as attested by the infamous mass graves. In 1988, he gassed Kurds in Halabja. He ruthlessly suppressed uprisings in southern Iraq after the first Gulf War, killing many thousands. He also committed ecocide there. And his mad war against Iran killed roughly one million. Saddam's long term of "office" was a reign of terror and torture; he carried out some killings personally.
But Saddam should be taken out of Iraq and American hands.
Because those hands are anything but clean.
First, there's the present situation. The US has no legal leg to stand on in Iraq. The occupation is illegal, having followed an illegal war of aggression, in contempt of the UN Charter. America's only responsibility is to withdraw and turn things over to the UN --- including the prosecution of war criminals.
Second, there's history. And it's not pretty.
The CIA helped put the Ba'ath Party in power in 1963 by aiding a coup against Adbul Karim Kassem, who later was executed. Saddam had taken part in a 1959 plot to assassinate Kassem; in 1979, Saddam himself became the maximum leader. A chummy relationship between Saddam and the US developed; the US ended up supporting him during the Iraq-Iran war, one of the high points in his criminal career. (US leaders have cultivated many friendships with monsters. Take Indonesian dictator Suharto, who with US connivance and arms eliminated a half-million "communists" and 200,000 East Timorese.)
During the Iran-Iraq war, the US military lent a hand by attacking Iranian oil platforms. This policy was billed as a response to Iranian attacks on oil tankers, but it also boosted Saddam's fortunes. Washington continued to give Saddam financial and moral support, even after Halabja. US suppliers sent Iraq the building blocks of biological weapons. And guess who was a US envoy to Saddam in the early 1980s? None other than Don Rumsfeld.
In 1990-1991 came the first Gulf War (thousands killed by US forces), followed by a decade of lethal economic sanctions (an estimated one million dead, half of them children). The current war and occupation have killed thousands more.
Again, hanging out this multilateral dirty laundry is no defense of Saddam, just as an afterthought about feeding the hungry is no defense of Cheney's little safari.
Saddam must be held accountable. He also must be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and he must have the chance to put US complicity with his regime into the record.
Above all, the death penalty must not be imposed. No human being should be denied the possibility of reform. Executions are barbarisms worthy of Saddam, not of us.