Monday, December 15, 2003


Is the footage of Saddam Hussein’s scalp and mouth inspection, now playing ad infinitum on a 24-hour cable news channel near you, humiliating? Some have said so (no links at hand, sorry to say; just check the usual suspects), but when I first saw the footage Sunday morning I was struck by how dispassionate and clinical, how civilized and humane it seemed. When the Iraqis lucked into capturing those hapless, wrong-turning American grunts back in March, they beat them bloody and then paraded them at gunpoint on television; we capture the capo di capo after an intensive, months-long search and we . . . check his hygiene on television.

In a sense this is humiliating, but it’s a salutary humiliation, and one in keeping with American ideals of democracy and equality. Grandly: no man is above the law; colloquially: I don’t give a damn who you are, buddy, it’s my job to check heads for lice, and I’m gonna check your head for lice. If the issue is how this footage plays in the proverbial Arab street, I think the answer is that it should play well, or at least appropriately, in a good-medicine kind of way. That is, it shows, in a compressed, symbolic way, the difference between the tyrannies and theocracies that have brutalized Iraq and its neighbors for so long and the kind of government that with any luck will rule Iraq and its neighbors in the future. And if how it plays in the Arab street is not the issue, then who really gives a damn, since he deserves infinitely worse treatment.

Oh, and another thing that struck me: when someone who looks for all the world like a wino has been living in hole for God knows how long, what the hell must his breath smell like? That poor guy with the tongue depressor earned his Purple Heart right there.


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