It was sheer luck that news of Saddam Hussein's capture came on a Sunday, between church and football games, fitting right in with our weekly celebrations of virtue and violence.
It was the perfect time for President Bush to crow victory over this pitiful, bedraggled Third World dictator, who looked as if he were just dragged from the sewers of Victor Hugo's Paris. The triumph of virtue over evil, said Bush, for Saddam had defied the gift of freedom "from the Almighty to the people of Iraq."
Fortunately for the Almighty, he has George W. Bush to deliver his terrible swift sword. Whose blood isn't stirred by such grand events? We are back in the Crusades, the time, Runciman told us in his great history of the era, "of so much courage and so little honor, so much devotion and so little understanding."
"How will we know the infidels from the faithful?" asked the general. "Kill them all," replied the bishop, "God will know his own."
In this moment of holiday rejoicing, allow me to point out the ugly realities: Nothing has changed in Iraq. Americans are still a detested occupation force using, according to widely disseminated news reports, "Israeli-style" tactics at a time Israel's own military has told its politicians they don't work.
Saddam's capture does not turn a bad war into a good one, or improve the lot of the wretched Iraqis or change the evidence that Bush's crusade has transformed Iraq into a terrorist state. It will not bring back the estimated 10,000 Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. forces (Iraq's governing council has just ordered the body count halted), or the unknown numbers of Iraqi soldiers killed defending their nation against aggression. It will not remove the miles of razor wire spread around the nation to separate the liberators from the liberated.
But Sunday was a day to rejoice. Why be a wet blanket? What harm is done by a little celebrating, assuming it does not inspire the king to launch new actions against other infidels?
Before this is over, we will wish Saddam had used his pistol or that the sergeant had been allowed to drop his grenade into the "spider hole" where he hid, which looked like a tunnel to me. It was a great military triumph to be sure, diminished only slightly by the member of Saddam's clan who fingered him, though he won't collect the $25 million reward because he volunteered his information "under duress," whatever that means.
Why didn't Saddam do the honorable thing in his bunker, as Hitler did? Was he "trembling" and afraid to die, as the news accounts said? Is this man who has killed so many a coward himself? He knows the warriors' creed, "live by the sword, die by the sword." Why did he lay down his sword at the last minute?
Because he wants to turn his trial to his advantage, that's why. Since he has a real chance of success at that, don't expect the trial to happen before next year's U.S. elections. If Saddam is turned over to the Iraqi Governing Council anytime soon, we can expect an Iraqi version of Jack Ruby to spare the nation (or rather, our nation) the expense of a trial.
Already the Bush administration is waffling about the timing, nature and jurisdiction of a Saddam trial. Such a trial, if America is faithful to its past traditions, should be speedy, fair and public.
Judging, however, from what has been reported about Guantanamo, the treatment of Jose Padilla, Yasser Hamdi and Army Capt. James Yee, and about the legal challenges of Bush's Justice Department, we cannot expect fidelity to traditions.
If, miraculously, Saddam survives the many pitfalls between him and a speedy, fair and public trial, expect a doozy. Every Arab and Muslim nationalist and fundamentalist from Baghdad to Damascus (traveling east) will be listening as he tells the court, in Arabic, that Bush's invasion was a brutal and unjustified war of aggression against a sovereign nation.
He will not deny responsibility for past wars and deaths and will spell out in detail the support he received from the Reagan and Bush I administrations at the time, perhaps producing minutes of his meetings with Reagan representatives still prominent today, such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. That would be interesting.
I felt for the Democratic presidential candidates Sunday. Aside from Joe Lieberman, a hawk from the beginning, they were cowed into deferential silence. Except for angrily attacking each other with accusations the Republicans will dutifully file away for future use, they said nothing of substance.
With the whooping over, the scalp on the belt and the hide nailed to the wall, Americans still face a long, hostile, costly and unnecessary occupation. George W. Bush may rejoice in capturing the man "who tried to kill your dad," as a reporter said at his press conference. Americans need to know that their family vendetta is being settled at a very high price.
© Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.