Don't Panic

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How might putting Saddam Hussein on trial benefit Americans?

The arrest of Saddam Hussein and several of his key henchman is a marvelous opportunity for Iraqis. I'm not talking about revenge, even though requiring Saddam to demonstrate that "car battery hooked to the genitals" Iraqi torture device I've heard about might be fun to watch.

I'm talking about truth and reconciliation. If the phrase sounds vaguely familiar, it's because that's what South Africa has done successfully since white-minority Apartheid rule ended. Rather than string up the thousands of whites responsible for torturing and killing blacks throughout the 20th century, then President Nelson Mandela set up a Truth and Reconciliation commission. People who confessed their full crimes to the commission were granted amnesty. Some people complain that criminals are getting off lightly. They are, but by and large, forsaking bloodlust and focusing instead on truth has allowed the South African public to assign proper blame and move on relatively peacefully.

Saddam was a mini-Hitler who orchestrated the murders of hundreds of thousands. He and his top people should and will be punished, not pardoned, but they should still be forced to confess the full truth of their crimes to the Iraqi public.

If Saddam & Co. have to 'fess up for all their crimes, Americans might benefit too. I'm not just talking about CourtTV, which will have to go on a hiring binge in order to bring us simultaneous coverage of the Saddam, Michael Jackson, Robert Blake and Scott Peterson trials. We, us, you and me, all of us will benefit because a Saddam who's going down is likely to bring up the fact that our government stood by him through some of his most evilest of deeds. I should be more specific. It wasn't just our government that stood by him — several generally esteemed members of past and current administrations were remarkably chummy with Saddam.

A Saddam on the witness stand being questioned about his penchant for gassing people might mention that our straight-talkin' Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld twice visited Saddam in the 1980s as an emissary of the Reagan administration (e-mail me and I'll send you a video of Rummy shaking hands with and being deferential to Saddam). Rummy went to Iraq to re-affirm American support for Saddam, even though he and the rest of the Reagan White House knew that Saddam was using chemical weapons against Iran.

About the same time that Rummy was chowing down on falafel at Saddam's pad, Reagan's Secretary of State George Schultz was stopping by a meeting that his Lawrence Eagleburger (who later served as Bush 1's Secretary of State) was having with a Saddam lackey. Schultz dropped by to tell the lackey to ignore any public comments that American officials might make complaining about Saddam gassing Iranians or fellow Iraqis. Incidentally, Schultz's then former corporate home, Bechtel, had a lucrative deal with Iraq at that time to build an oil pipeline. Schultz returned to Bechtel after leaving government.

A public trial of Saddam might also focus American public attention on WMDs — or the lack of them — something about which the current administration would rather we not think about. Forget for a second how Bush & Co. clearly manipulated the real WMD evidence to make Saddam's arsenal appear deadlier than it was in order to justify the latest war. (Note to self: How can readers forget? You just reminded them.) The fact is that our intelligence agencies thought that Saddam has at least some WMDs when in fact it seems he had almost none. A Saddam trial would be a rare opportunity to hear straight from Hussein's mouth what Iraq had and when. Along with the physical evidence we find, we might then be able to take our intelligence agencies to task for the things they got wrong with the aim of improving them.

So please, pretty please, oh mighty powers that be, can we have a nice, long, open-to-public-scrutiny Saddam trial? Sure, a few dozen of our most powerful military/political/industrial complex poobahs might suffer. The rest of us will benefit though.[email protected]

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