May 02, 2005

A Small Heresy

If you want to murder someone and get away with it, you could pick a worse place than Washington, DC.

OK, so this case, involving the murder of a District community activist and reported by Colbert King, may be exceptional. Not all American murder cases get bobbled around for six years and counting despite strong physical evidence; most of them get wrapped up in three years or so, easy. Unless the defendant gets sentenced to death or has unusually competent counsel, in which case all bets are off.

We have this small lacuna in our conception of justice, the idea that on the list of things required to produce justice timeliness is right at the bottom if it appears at all. By "we" I don't just mean Americans, either. In Europe the trial of Slobodan Milosevic is still dragging on a full decade after Srbenica; to date this proceeding has been criticized more often for alleged bias than for the likelihood that Milosevic will be dead from natural causes before it ends.

These are the glories of the rule of law the international community, with the support of the Bush administration, wants to make sure is impressed on Iraq. They come with a price. Take the trial of Saddam Hussein. It has now been almost eighteen months since he was apprehended, the best guess today is that it may take another twenty-four before his trial even starts.

Saddam Hussein is perhaps the only man, thing, or concept less popular in Iraq than the occupation. Whatever the gain to our ideas of justice in his individual case from keeping him out of sight and out of mind as far as the Iraqi people are concerned, the political price has been enormous. Speeding up Saddam's trial could have made it difficult for the Iraqi insurgency to pretend it was not fighting to restore the police state he ran; it could have focused Iraqis' attention on the need to complete the journey from Saddam's Iraq to the Iraq they want, rather than blaming the Americans for everything that is wrong now. It might even have contributed to fewer Iraqis and American soldiers getting shot and blown up over the last year.

We may as well be frank: to the extent our intention is to demonstrate to Saddam's Arab admirers that he is being treated fairly we are embarked on a fool's errand. One might as well try to persuade them that the Mossad did not blow up the World Trade Center or that Arabs have been committing genocide against other Muslims in Darfur for the last two years. Any verdict against Saddam will be seen by many as victor's justice regardless of how his trial is conducted. Since justice of any kind could not have happened unless Saddam had lost the war, this is not something we ought to fear.

The length of time Saddam Hussein has been in custody was about how long it took between the time senior Nazi and German military officials surrendered to Allied forces and the end of their respective trials at Nuremberg. In the cases of ten senior Nazis sentenced to death, a little over two weeks elapsed between delivery of verdict and execution of sentence. With all respect to today's international legal community and its dream of perfect justice for all and full employment for lawyers, the trials given the Nazis were good enough.

The project to bring democracy and the rule of law to Iraq had very long odds against it to begin with. The odds have been made longer in this case through our embrace of one of the worst aspects of Western legal practice, the idea that justice delayed is no big deal.

Posted by at May 2, 2005 01:59 AM | TrackBack (5)

6 Years!!!

Isn't that about half the time an inmate serves for a life sentence nowadays give or take??

Western societies need to perhaps consider the absurdity on prosecuting thousands upon thousands of people for minor drugs charges (which hurt no one but the offender) clogging our courts, prisons and policing systems and costing untold millions, whilst those who commit serious and grave offences which harm maim and kill others take such a ridiculously long time to bring to justice?

And while we spend these vast sums of money policing prosecuting and imprisoning large numbers of people who by and large harm only themselves - organised crime (including terrorists) profit for the Governments Abdication of responsibility for the control of the supply of drugs....

Makes a mockery of justice in my opinion. Still it could be worse - look at Schapelle Corby - Dubiously charged with importing 4KG of cannabis into Indonesia (which I'm fairly sure she is innocent of), faces the death penalty, while Abu Bakir Bashir (the mastermind of the bali bombing which killed 200+ people gets 2 years 6 months likely to be reduced on appeal...

Posted by: Aran Brown at May 3, 2005 01:29 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Note for Army Training & Doctrine Command handbook: The next time troops discover a known agent of mass-murder regime in a hidey-hole, throw in a grenade, not a Miranda warning. It will save a lot of time and lawyer bills, and provide better justice..

Posted by: Axel Kassel at May 3, 2005 01:08 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I wouldn't mind seeing Saddam kicked and beaten to death by a mob, as long as the mob is Iraqi.

It worked for Mussolini.

Posted by: Joel at May 3, 2005 02:17 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Great post, Joseph. The Milosevic trial is the perfect example of what justice is not. Here's hoping that Saddam's trial will go differently.

The trial's importance has to be seen in the degree to which Saddam's regime will be seen by all to be the horror that it was.

Posted by: JohnFH at May 3, 2005 07:49 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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