a new context for the communal production, appropriation and distribution of critical knowledge

Sunday, January 14, 2007

...as one ras rolls, another steps up...

Taking the “commune without a leader” and “body without a head” theme in a new direction… I’m talking about the lynching of Saddam, his head not severed, but his neck marked by a ring of wounds, as is shown in the most recent cell phone recording of his lifeless body.

We are now more than two weeks after his killing. We were so saddened by it, not because of any attachment to the man, of course, but because its symbolism was too great and too empty at the same time, or great in its banality, perhaps. We were not overwhelmed with a feeling of rage as we may have been if this had all happened at the beginning of the invasion. And I don’t think that supporters of the war were even celebrating, as they would have been before. He had already been killed anyway. Even with his refusal to acknowledge the court, we could all see him confined to it, so it seemed kind of goofy and sad. And of course, we can’t even be sad about it, because we hated him too. We couldn’t even be enraged that they killed a hero since we hated him, not to mention that he was already dead. So we end up just feeling weird and cheated and realize that we are almost at the 4th year of the occupation of Iraq.

Maybe it is too easy to make the connection between Saddam’s trial and the Eichmann trial in Israel in 1961. The Eichmann trial, remember, was separate from the Nuremburg trials, and was all about, as Hannah Arendt neatly pointed out, firming up the new Israeli national identity. It was the first time that people there and around the world heard stories from the concentration camps told in public--noteworthy since the Israeli state at the time was quite intent on suppressing any holocaust identity in service of the “new Jew” hyper-macho Israeli identity. It was a kind of public reinforcement of the “necessity” of the Jewish state, and a performance to bring the nation and the world along for the emotional talking through of shame and victimhood, that culminated with the hanging of Eichmann, the residue of which could be nothing but a renewed collective pride in the militaristic state. After all, even if you are opposed to the state, how could you disagree with the punishment of the mastermind of crimes against humanity? That is the trick we are feeling now, of course.

Eichmann was different than Saddam in that he fully participated in his show trial, and even appealed on the grounds of Israeli law. That was part of what was so horrifying about it for people. He showed no extra-legal resistance. They wanted him to be such a monster, but he was just this guy with glasses. (Arendt writes: ‘Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.’) But then he also showed no remorse, as he admitted to what acts he was accused of, but not of their symbolic importance. He famously said that he would have done it again, not owning the crimes, but admitting that it was all straight up careerism for him, and in effect still was in that he did not seem to be in an “afterwards” state of reflection. He felt that he was the victim of those who took advantage of his obedience and commitment to a job well done. He was full of clichéd phrases, and maddened the judges by describing his career, which they saw as in and of itself horrid, with joy and elation, as though he was just recounting his newest promotion.

Eichmann’s last words were: “After a while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany. Long live Austria. Long live Argentina. I shall not forget them.” Saddam’s last words were garbled and misreported, though apparently amongst them were retorts to the guards who were taunting him, “Palestine is Arab,” and his final words, the shahada, though he died before he could finish.

Saddam also never let go of his nationalistic phrases. He was different in so many ways, of course, especially that he was a leader while Eichmann was a man behind the scenes. But in their trials they were the same in that they did not go out of character. But in such a situation how could they? What do we expect them to do? Apologize? Wouldn’t that be even more obscene? How can someone be punished enough, how can he apologize enough? How do we understand this excess? I know these are the most basic questions, but I don’t know how to think around them.

All this talk about beheading, too, makes me think about how shocked people in the U.S. and Europe were at seeing the videos of the beheadings of hostages in Iraq. Not unusual, I guess, to fixate on individual beheadings in order not to see the beheading of Iraq.

And finally, as one ras rolls, another steps up. Isn’t there some symbolic connection between the demise of Saddam and the nomination of Khalilzad for Bolton’s old position? Why don’t the newscasters just repeat over and over “he would be the first Muslim in the U.S. cabinet” like a mantra, and take out all of the extra words that they throw in around that sentence just to make it seem casual?


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