Charles Krauthammer has an interesting observation:

When the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown in 1958, Prime Minister Nuri Said, fleeing disguised as a woman, was caught, castrated and hacked to pieces by a crowd. When the strongman who took power, Abdul Karim Kassem, was overthrown five years later, he was shot and his body displayed on television. When Najibullah, deposed dictator of Afghanistan, was killed by the Taliban in 1996, he too was castrated, shot and hung, still alive, from a lamppost.

Given the neighborhood, the complaint about the offense to local sensitivities by the American treatment of the bodies of Uday and Qusay Hussein is hard to fathom. Not that the public display of overthrown tyrants is by any means an exclusively Muslim custom. Think back only to 1989, when the Ceausescus’ summary execution was videotaped and their bodies shown on Romanian television, or, most famously, to Mussolini being strung upside down by the partisans.

Add to this scenes like that in my previous post. Clearly, this is not a society squeamish about violence.

These shows of public fury are more than just catharsis. They are a form of preventive politics. You want to show that the king is not only dead but humiliated, desecrated, so as to strip him posthumously of the awe and aura he possessed in life.

Which is why the display of the dead Hussein brothers was necessary. Consider the circumstances under which the Baath regime was overthrown. For 30 years it ruled by torture and fear. Then all of a sudden it disappeared. It was not decimated. It vanished, literally, into the night.

In that part of the world, people are used to seeing their deposed leaders in chains — or worse. In Iraq, however, more than two-thirds of the deck of cards have been captured, but entirely antiseptically. Not one has been shown in public or on television.

There is an announcement: The six of spades has been arrested. But no picture. No proof. Nothing tangible.

It is rather odd that Martha Stewart does a perp walk for trading ImClone, but Tariq Aziz, complicit in the murder and torture of tens of thousands, does not. The reason is simple: The Baathist thugs are war prisoners, and international law does not permit their display.

But there’s a loophole. You are not allowed to parade a prisoner on television, but there is nothing in the Geneva Conventions about displaying dead bodies. Hence the display of Uday and Qusay. They were not only the most important torturers. They were the deadest.

Harsh, but true.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.