15 December 2003

A Horse's Ass

(Those of you who recall George II's pronunciation of the former Iraqi dictator's forename and also have much understanding of Arabic will understand the title.) Well, since everybody else in the blawgosphere seems to have an opinion, I'll express mine.

The only acceptable trial will be before an international tribunal. Even if we take excrutiating efforts to ensure fairness—and, all lip service to the contrary, we won't, it's not in the nature of the kind of people who are actually placed in charge of these things—all we're going to end up with is a show trial. Just like in Cambodia. Just like in post-Revolutionary Russia. This points out one of the weird contradictions in my own character: I was a commissioned officer, still believe in those values, and yet I'm an antistatist. The lesson to be taken from Africa and the Balkans is not that all minorities (ethnic, religious, whatever) must be self-determinative to have value. It is instead that all minorities (ethnic, religious, whatever) must have a voice. That voice should be in the context of the largest administratively feasible unit.

We are not yet to the point that a world government is administratively feasible; we're getting closer. (If we could just do something about Gallic arrogance, such as insistance that UN Presidents speak French, we might be able to get somewhere.) I certainly do not profess an American hegemony as appropriate for all the world: We have too many problems at home as of yet with intolerance, among other things.

Although the Nuremberg trials were far from flawless, they present the best model available for dealing with former heads of state and high government officials who were violently removed from office. The "reforms" and "modifications" offered by the World Court are actually steps backward. My one bit of "Anglo-American hegemony" that I would offer is that the common law tradition is vastly and objectively superior to the civil code tradition (which nonetheless does have some things to "teach" the common law). Putting judges with little or no personal experience with common-law criminal matters, such as the majority of those currently on the World Court, may well prove counterproductive. The whole point of atrocities, genocide, repression, etc. is the creativity of tyrants in pursuit of power. Civil code systems are ill-equipped (literally and psychologically) to deal with that creativity.

Saddam Hussein is not particularly intelligent. He does have a streak of creativity and cunning that push his particular actions outside the civil-code preconceptions at the World Court. The alternatives to using the World Court are worse, though. An Iraqi tribunal will look like something out of Haing Ngor's nightmares (that he was shot and killed in south LA in a dispute over a parking spot is proof that any Supreme Being has a really sick sense of humor). Even the best of intentions will be strongly influenced by the immediate political context. A US tribunal, given the way we've handled our "Afghani POWs" (in contravention of international, US, and military law), would be worse. So, as unsatisfactory as the World Court or a Nuremberg (specially constituted) tribunal would be, they represent the only realistic alternatives.

No system of justice is perfect; if one takes away nothing else from Plato and the long line of serious writers on utopianism, culminating in the second-to-last story in The Wind's Twelve Quarters, it is that the greatest good for the greatest number is not conducive to individual justice. That does not mean we can stop striving for justice; it means only that we cannot point to an ideal system that will produce it.