Dictators die harder

Jim Hoagland:

Dictators die harder than most of us. Having wielded unlimited power in life, they seem to be sustained by a stubborn belief in their ability to stare down death, too. In his final moments yesterday, Saddam Hussein refused the offer of a hood to cover his eyes.

Such defiance lends a particularly morbid quality to the last days of dictators such as Hussein and the now-infirm Fidel Castro. They follow in the reluctant footsteps of Spain's Francisco Franco and of many other tyrants-in-extremis before el rais Saddam and el jefe Fidel were confronted, respectively, with a hangman's rope and the withering ravages of disease.

Survival is the dictator's primary occupation -- as well as his justification for ruthlessness. "His main contribution to life, finally, is fear; but fear such as thunder, cancer or madness may provoke," author William Kennedy wrote of the fictional caudillo that Gabriel García Márquez created in "The Autumn of the Patriarch." Facing death, the dictator is "the embodiment of egocentric evil unleashed," Kennedy continued in a masterful 1976 book review for the New York Times.

The year before, García Márquez was in Madrid, as was I, for Franco's 40 days and nights of dying, inch by inch. Moreover, meetings I had with Hussein around the same time and later with Castro instantly gave me the impression that neither intended to go into the night quietly -- or at all. They could not and would not let others pretend to command their people, nor would they allow history to tamper with the image they willed for themselves.

When he ruled Iraq, Hussein left nothing to chance. A visitor who might greet him had to wash his or her hands with a mysterious blue liquid and pass through a maze of metal detectors in his vast palace. Among the scores of guards and aides, only one was trusted to know which room Hussein would use to greet the visitor.

For years after that encounter, I published open letters to Hussein urging him to get out of the dictator business or at least to quit slaughtering his nation's Kurds, Shiites and Sunni dissidents. I can stop. The approach of the hangman's rope finally focused his mind on my point.


Those who would blame all of Iraq's current evils on the American occupation are already busy airbrushing Hussein's image. But we cannot let death obscure his role in creating the inferno that is Iraq today. He leaves behind a country successfully recast in his own ferocious image to a degree far greater than I had imagined.

Before 2003, I believed that Iraqis were largely a people held hostage by Hussein, his murderous clan and the Baathist machine. But far more Iraqis turned out to be like Hussein -- ready to use torture and assassination in the pursuit of wealth and power -- than the world's best intelligence agencies had predicted, as David Kay's official analysis of the CIA failure to understand pre-invasion Iraq details. These Iraqis are Saddam Hussein's enduring legacy.


Many are still doing the job they did for Saddam. The big difference now is that people can shoot back at them and they have to worry about the possibility of justice for their victims. It is a justice that found Saddam and could also find them at any time. There are also the Shia militia that have sunk to Saddam like levels in their retribution for Sunni attacks. To stop those attacks the government has to do a better and speedier job of bringing justice.


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