The Banana Election: From Hanging Chads to Hanging Saddam
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The announcement of Saddam Hussein's death sentence two days before our midterm elections brings to mind the opening scene of Woody Allen's film Bananas. Howard Cosell is covering the impending assassination of a dictator in an unnamed Banana Republic. On one side of the street, Cosell thrusts a microphone under the dictator's nose and asks how it feels when one is about to be assassinated. After the dictator responds, the assassin takes aim, shoots, and the dictator falls down dead. Cosell then crosses the street to interview the successor, Woody Allen. Everything goes according to script.
Sunday, as Saddam's verdict hearing convened, a pert blonde reporter from Fox News took her place in the second row of the courtroom. Although she often had trouble getting a seat during the trial, the U.S.-Iraqi-powers-that-be made sure she was prominently seated for the show. After the verdict, the reporter told millions of Fox viewers how frightened she was to be so close to Saddam. The network juxtaposed the verdict report with a discourse on the perils of radical Islam. Ironically, tyrant that he was, Saddam ran a secular government in which radical Islam was not permitted to flourish.
Saddam's verdict was choreographed in much the same way as the fall of his huge statue in the Baghdad square after Bush shocked-and-awed him out of power. Scenes of celebrating Iraqis filled American television screens with only brief forays into Tikrit or the Sunni area of Baghdad where angry Iraqis took to the streets notwithstanding the curfew policed by U.S. soldiers on Sunday.
In spite of the carefully produced event, many Iraqis found little solace in bringing Saddam to justice. Operation Iraqi Freedom has brought death and destruction to their country. More than 650,000 civilians have died, kidnappings and torture are rampant, and women who leave their Baghdad homes without a veil can be beheaded.
Saddam's trial, which took place in a country under U.S. occupation, was illegitimate. The courtroom where he was tried, convicted and sentenced is anything but a hall of justice. Established with $75 million of American money, the "Iraqi" tribunal was approved by the Pentagon and the State Department. The Bush administration has been calling the shots throughout the trial. Three defense attorneys have been killed and the chief judge resigned in protest against government involvement in the trial. Saddam should have been tried in an international tribunal that was not controlled by the United States.
A few hours after Sunday's verdict, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, announced he is still looking for Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Of course Bush long ago abandoned that rationale for invading Iraq. He now points to Saddam's death sentence to justify his war. But will the American public buy this Banana Republic extravaganza?
Things are falling apart in Iraq, with the monthly death toll for U.S. soldiers higher now than when Saddam was captured in 2003. With no end in sight, Americans will render their verdict on Tuesday.
Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, president of the National Lawyers Guild, and the US representative to the executive committee of the American Association of Jurists.