(I would insert the image here but, alas, as you can see from the previous post, my site layout does not deal well with images.)
Anyway, the short story is that they have a picture that compares the ski-masked face of one of the executioners to that of the infamous Shiite cleric, Muqtada as-Sadr. I’m not an imagery analysis expert, so I don’t know whether this has been “Photoshopped” or not; it very well could have been. However, its existence is important even if it is fake. It powerfully represents the idea that has now all but become conventional wisdom: Saddam’s execution was just Shiite revenge. In a region that is prone to conspiracy theory and in an age that seems to value verisimilitude over verity, I guess we should not be surprised.
Of course, the cell-phone video of Saddam’s execution is also helping to cement the new conventional wisdom. The major U.S. media outlets are abuzz about the execution being infiltrated by Shiite militias.
There are several problems here. First, I recognize that this incident further diminishes the legitimacy of the Iraqi government in the eyes of Iraq’s Sunni population. But the key word there is “further”. Sunnis already have a problem with the current government because it is controlled by the Shia. U.S. media tends to treat that situation as if it is somehow unfair. Yet, it is the result of demographics and democracy. There are more Shia than Sunni, and the Shia voted in greater numbers than the Sunni. Hence, we have a government that is run by the Shia. Now, of course, we want the government to be seen as legitimate by the Sunnis. Of course we want protection for the rights of the minority. (Review John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty regarding the “tyranny of the majority”.)
The situation in Iraq is not perfect: The government does have a legitimacy problem among Sunnis. The rights of the Sunni minority are most likely not being protected as they should be. But the situation under Saddam was even less perfect. It was not a tyranny of the majority, it was a tyranny of the minority. It was not purely a tyranny of the Sunni over the Shia either, as Saddam arrested, tortured, and killed many Sunnis as well. It was a tyranny of one man and his devoted followers over an entire country, Sunni and Shia alike.
So the second problem is that all of this fixation on a cell-phone video obscures the fact that a brutal tyrant has been put to death for his brutality and tyranny. That does not mean that we ignore the imperfections and transgressions of the current government. It does not mean that we hold no one accountable. It does not mean that we do not try to make the system better. Rather, it means that we must keep the current situation in perspective. It means that we should be careful not to implicitly excuse past tyrannies because of the imperfections of the present and the future.
Third, so what if this was Shiite revenge? Of course, it’s the question that no one dare ask. But it highlights the fact that the new conventional wisdom rests upon the unspoken but necessary assumption that revenge is never justified, that it is always to be rejected and condemned. Do we really believe that to be the case? Is revenge never justified? Not even a little, not even in a case such as this? I’m NOT arguing that it is justified in general, NOR that it is justified in this case. But I AM pointing out that the new conventional wisdom cannot stand if we have doubts about the wisdom of its necessary assumptions.
Finally, there has been a lot of speculation about Saddam’s last words. If there is anything positive about the cell-phone video, it may be that it can help clear up the controversy. Though the quality of the audio is poor, and though my Arabic skills are pretty rusty at this point, as best I can tell Saddam was in the process of saying the Shahadah, the Muslim declaration of faith, and the first of the Five Pillars of Islam.
ashadu anna la ilaha illallah, wa ashadu anna muhammadu rasulullah
I bear witness that there is no God but God, and that Muhammad is the prophet of God.
This is what I learned as the Shahadah in my study of Arabic at Georgetown. Of course, there is some variation. Slightly different versions can be found here and here. They all express the same idea, however. Anyway, if you listen closely to the cell-phone video, it appears that Saddam is dropped during the second half of the Shahadah.
(On a much lighter note: That cell-phone video is 2 mins 36 sec long. My sleek, hi-tech, stylish, gotta-have-it Motorola Razr will only take about 10 sec of video before it automatically stops. How the heck is this guy in Iraq taking two and a half minutes of video on his phone?!? It always seems to be the case that every place else in the world has better cell-phones than the U.S. I guess we can now add Iraq to the list as well.)