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January 4, 2004 "The whole idea of revenge and punishment is a childish day-dream."

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If George Orwell argued that "The whole idea of revenge and punishment is a childish day-dream" then are George Bush and the rest of us childish for being so pleased with the idea that really bad people should be executed, and proud of our record of doing so as often as possible?


Could Orwell be wrong?


This is worth a read.

George Packer. The New Yorker, Issue of 2004-01-05, Posted 2003-12-29

Packer opens with this:


"Revenge Is Sour" is the title that George Orwell gave to a short essay on war-crimes trials, written just after the Second World War.  "The whole idea of revenge and punishment is a childish day-dream," he argued.  "Properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge.  Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also."  He cited the story of an old woman reported to have fired five shots into the body of Benito Mussolini, one for each of her dead sons.  "I wonder how much satisfaction she got out of those five shots, which, doubtless, she had dreamed years earlier of firing," Orwell wrote.  "The condition of her being able to get near enough to Mussolini to shoot at him was that he should be a corpse."

If revenge is psychologically impossible, justice is politically necessary - not the fantasy of righting monumental wrongs but the reality of holding wrongdoers to account.  The twentieth century came and went without justice.  None of the century's great totalitarians ever had to sit at a defense table, confer with lawyers, rise with the court when the judge entered the room.  Mussolini was lynched; Hitler committed suicide; Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot died in old age.  Two international tribunals are currently grinding away at more recent crimes; but the Hutu propagandists convicted of genocide in Rwanda last month were barely known outside that country, and Slobodan Milosevic was a second-tier dictator.  The trial of Saddam Hussein will be the first of a world-class mass murderer.  The number of potential counts against Saddam exceeds half a million.  Behind the Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni Arab Iraqis who were his principal victims stand Iranians and Kuwaitis with war-crimes charges of their own.  Saddam imposed his name, his face, and his will on Iraqi history to a degree that makes lesser cults of personality seem like ordinary narcissism.  The symbolic importance of his trial is exactly proportionate to his vast power.


You can imagine how the rest of it runs.


Ann Clwyd, Tony Blair's special representative to Iraq, proclaimed, using American jargon, that Saddam's capture would bring "some kind of closure" to Iraqis.  This thinking recalls the Bush Administrations original idea of a simple war of liberation, and shows as little grasp of the reality of Iraqis' lives.  The insurgency against American and coalition forces gives no sign of relenting.  Its inspirational leader has been ignobly caught, but guerrilla wars are seldom centrally controlled, the foreign occupiers remain in Iraq as targets, and the prospect of a more representative government is as threatening as ever to the privileged status of the country's Sunni Arabs.  Nothing has been closed.


Bringing closure I never knew what that meant, or more precisely, how it was supposed to work.  A bad guy kills my family, then the state kills him, and I feel all better?  I don't get it.  My family is not coming back.  The execution allows me to stop obsessing about revenge so I can go back to work and be normal?  Maybe that's it.

Anyway, there is a long discussion here of what kind of trial Saddam Hussein might have and all the implications of what might be said.  A good analysis of what can be done with Hussein.

But Packer ends with this:


... at least a trial will bring Iraqis face to face with what was done to them and what they became.  In this sense, Saddam's capture represents the opposite of "closure."  "I hate this man to the core of my bones," an Iraqi engineer told a Times reporter after watching footage of the King of the Arabs submitting to a mouth inspection like a vagrant at a mobile health clinic.  "And yet, I can't tell you why, I feel sorry for him, to be so humiliated.  It is as if he and Iraq have become the same thing."  Separating Iraq from Saddam will be far harder than toppling a statue or capturing a fugitive.  One way to begin is by resisting the illusion that killing Saddam will cleanse the legacy of Baathist rule, which, after all, was launched with televised trials and public hangings.


What?  We try the guy, we execute him, and everyone feels lots better.  Done. 


Achieving closure is a false concept?

I think it is.  But the arrayed forces of American psychobabble are formidable.