James Carroll

The hanging of Saddam Hussein on Dec. 30 offered a view into the grotesque reality of what America has sponsored in Iraq, and what Americans saw should inform their response to President George W. Bush's escalation of the war.

The deposed tyrant was mercilessly taunted. As he stood on the threshold of the afterlife and was told to go to hell, the world witnessed a chilling elevation of the ancient curse, making an absolute villain an object of pity.

And then, in chanting the name of Moktada al-Sadr, whose family had been a particular target of Hussein's, his executioners made clear that the execution was an act of tribal revenge, not of national restoration, much less justice. It was a lynching.

This Shiite brutality is guaranteed to spawn Sunni savagery. Iraq itself is hell.

Officials of the United States, from military commanders in Baghdad to members of the bush administration in Washington, sought to distance themselves from the bedlam, but they are essential to what happened at the last moments of Saddam's life. Decorum would have been the main note of his death if Americans had managed it, but the execution would have been no less an act of false justice.

The harsh fact is that the Shiite dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, in its contemptible treatment of a man about to die, laid bare the dark truth of Bush's war. This is what revenge looks like, and revenge (not weapons of mass destruction, not democracy) drove the initial U.S. attack on Saddam Hussein every bit as much as it snuffed out his life at the end. The hooded executioners took their cue from Bush.

And why should they not have? Let's remember who this man is. As governor of Texas, he preside over the executions of 152 people, including the first woman put to death in Texas in a century.

Her name was Karla Faye Tucker. Bush's response to the world-wide plea raised in her behalf was an astounding display of cruelty, a mocking imitation of the woman begging not to be killed.

Bush rejected appeals for clemency in every death penalty case that came before him. The Texas death chamber, with its lethal injections gurney, is a place of decorum. And savagery. That executions defined the main public distinction that bush brought to the U.S. presidency sums up the national disgrace, while suggesting also how little surprise there should be that America is presided over now by an executioner-in-chief.

Capital punishment is to individuals what aggressive war is to nations. The 20th century, for all its brutality (or because of it), marked the watershed era when world opinion shifted against both. Once, princes exercised life-and-death power over subjects with unchallenged authority. Once, the only check on a state's freedom to attack another state was its power to do so.

These two absolutes of realpolitik have changed. From the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 to principles laid down at the Nuremberg tribunals to the United Nations itself, wars of aggression stand condemned. The force of state violence is to be exercised only in self-defense or in defense of a victim people, in circumstances defined by international agreement.

Similarly, nation after nation has abolished the death penalty, understanding the absurdity of defending human life by destroying human life. If killing can ever be justified, individually or communally, it is only as an absolute last resort. In sum, an international moral consensus has taken shape against unnecessary violence, whether targeting a criminal or a rogue state.

Bush is the impresario of unnecessary violence. America has followed him into the death chamber of this war, and now he wants us to believe that the way out is through more death.

Iraqi loss of life remains mostly unimagined, but every evening on the television news, Americans see the sweet faces of young soldiers who have died in Bush's war. They were heroes, not criminals, yet bush dragged each on of them up onto a gallows. He positioned them on the trap door, hardly wincing as they then fell through. And now, in perhaps the greatest outrage of all, bush claims that the way to justify the unnecessary death he has caused is to add to them. Escalation is his way of saying, go to hell.

With his lies at the beginning of this war, and his fantasy how that an honorable outcome remains possible, the president is a taunting killer, caught in the act. He lacks nothing but the black hood. Stop this man.

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