He was free to wear a hood, and chose not to. He was free to speak to his captors, but we were not free to hear what he said. He was free, I suppose, to make a mighty speech, but we were not free to hear it. His black-hooded executioners were free to conceal their identities, but he, in the last five minutes of his life, was allowed no similar privacy.
We did not see him drop, his neck break, his neat suit fecally stained, nor the vengeful witnesses dance around his body, spitting on it if they did, kicking it if they did. Nor did we hear the irreligious hullabaloo that preceded the drop, the interruption of his final prayers by guards who mockingly duplicated his words and added to them his enemy’s name, “Moqtada! Moqtada!” and pulled the lever before his final, accepting yielding up to death was finished.
So what Iraq’s new “freedom” gave us this time round was the censored version of the killing of a man, a man still on trial for other crimes, a man who in almost any other jurisdiction would not have been killed at all; certainly not on the holiest day of the Sunni calendar, the equivalent of breaking George Bush’s neck on Christmas morning.
Rarely do we witness, with warning, the last moments of a life. These were pretty surprising. No rage, no railing, no sermonising, no physical struggle. A courteous, mild exchange about the black scarf he must wear. An accompanied walk to the drop, with the posture of a professor approaching a lectern in another town. And then, of course, what we in our freedom were not allowed to see.
These images will either change world history or they will not. It depends a bit on how many Americans watch them over and over and how many watch, instead, the funeral of the former US president Gerald Ford. But those who do will imagine, surely, how Bush might have behaved on a similar gallows, and the physical struggle, hortatory tears and loud pleadings while his captors held him down.
They may ask, too, a simple, arithmetical question: if a head of state can hang by the neck until he is dead for having ordered, or countenanced, or signed off on, or not punished, or failed to countermand the torture and killing of 148 Iraqis guiltless of any great crime, what will happen to the generals, bureaucrats, prime ministers and heads of state who ordered, or countenanced, or signed off on, or did not punish, or did not countermand, the killing of 150,000 Iraqis guiltless of any great crime (this is now the Iraqi Government’s estimate of the dead) and the torture of ten thousand more of them in Abu Ghraib? And how many Americans – Bremmer, Abizaid, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, Bush – should on this precedent be charged and hanged?
They may also ask, as many legal experts have, how much was fair about a trial in which three of the defence lawyers were shot dead and those who survived forbidden to see the prosecution’s written testimony before it was unveiled in court, and only those parts of the proceedings the Government liked were telecast – lest Saddam “grandstand” his cause and gain followers. And how wrong it was this trial was not aborted, and another trial begun in The Hague.
They may ask as well why Saddam died so soon. Something to do, perhaps, with his coming genocide trials and the complicity of Germany, France, the US and Britain in the manufacture of his nerve gas, anthrax, cluster bombs and helicopter gunships, and his amiable business relationships with Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush snr, once head of the CIA, in past decades, and how his genocidal methods back then did not greatly annoy them, not so long as he paid his bills.