Saddam's horrors brought home

The images out of Iraq are shaming. Why did it take so long for us to care?

Published April 10, 2003 9:19PM (EDT)

Is it possible that Saddam will fade away like the Cheshire cat, with nothing left but the mustache? The videos we were endlessly analyzing before Monday's bunker buster pictured him trying to be jocular in a curtained chamber with a group of unhappy-looking fellow mustaches. Now the chances are he is holding that same meeting under a pile of rubble. Or is he? As the flags wave, it doesn't seem to matter either way. The National Enquirer in the next five years is going to have a field day of Saddam sightings. The 16 look-alikes will keep showing up in smoky cafes in Cairo, crowded mosques in Jakarta, a paramilitary version of "Where's Waldo?"

As Saddam fades, so, perhaps, will the genre of dictator defined by whiskers. Saddam undoubtedly picked his up from Stalin, whom he idolized, and he followed Stalin's style in pretty much everything else. Hitler's toothbrush was clearly the manifestation of a deep inferiority complex in comparison to the hirsute virility of Kaiser Wilhelm II. America stayed out of World War I for so long because it felt intimidated by that efflorescence, as Harper's frankly acknowledged in doggerel at the time:

Kaiser, Kaiser shining bright
You have given us a fright!
With your belts and straps and sashes
And your skyward-turned moustaches!

All dictators look ridiculous from a distance because we who are safe from them observe only their vanities. Easy enough for us to forget that behind their preposterous airs are the horror and the torture whose reality we are just beginning to glimpse in Iraq.

It has been tempting to dismiss Saddam as a relic from a bygone age of Ruritanian Peter Ustinov dictators -- the military uniform, the growling rhetoric about Running Dog Lackeys of Colonial Imperialism, the enormous statues that toppled in slow motion. We have been much more spooked by the mysterious ascetic evil of Osama bin Laden moving silently between caves with his laptop and virtual army, the technician of terror waiting to strike again. Without bin Laden and the specter of 9/11, the American public could never have been induced to take Saddam seriously a second time.

But just as Saddam is fading like a Cheshire cat, his menace is finally palpable to the free world. The allies fought their way into the heart of darkness, and the clues are everyhwere. Stacked coffins in a warehouse (which turned out to be relics from the Iran-Iraq slaughter). Scattered electrical cords. The little gulags of bloodied rooms with their telltale stacks of I.D. cards. In that chilling book "Saddam's Bombmaker," one of Saddam's former bedfellows remembers his "lifeless yellow eyes."

As the coalition gets deeper and deeper into Saddam's secret world, we are one defining photograph away from the evidence that will overturn all the logic of the preceding argument. We did not go to war for humanitarian reasons, but in the end we will think we did. Already it no longer feels quite as necessary to find "weapons of mass destruction" (which is just as well since they are embarrassingly slow to materialize). The image of a rusting pair of pliers or a meat hook hanging from the ceiling of an abandoned cell fills us with the kind of visceral terror the Iraqis have had to live with every day. It's shaming, really, that it took so long to care.

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I was on my way out of town when a friend called with the rumor that Michael Kelly had been killed in Iraq. He was embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division reporting for the Atlantic Monthly and his syndicated Washington Post column. I spent the journey hoping and praying the rumor was untrue.

Mike Kelly was one of the rare writers who could do all three things an editor craves: report, think, write. This might seem an obvious trio of gifts, but in fact they are a combination that is extremely hard to come by. Great essayists often are no good at describing a scene. Great reporters are often deaf to ideas and themes. Kelly could do all of it, as I discovered with delight when he joined me at the New Yorker as Washington correspondent.

Now, the sight of his pudgy, insubordinate face recurring on the news brings the war home with a sickening sense of loss. In this conflict, journalism is turning out to be more dangerous than soldiering. Out of perhaps 800 reporters in Iraq, at least 11 have died. If a ratio like that held true for the armies, American and British fatalities would now number well over a thousand.

I shall miss reading Kelly on the last days of Saddam. He was convinced of the rightness of the war, but his truthful and comic eye and his humane voice were an antidote to the endless barrage of hyped-up propaganda from cable TV, or the Viagra channels, as I have come to think of them. Mike's death -- and that of the buoyant NBC correspondent David Bloom within two days of each other -- reminds us of the sacrifices. Gulf War I left us with the how-cool sense of America's effective might. But 9/11 intervened and in Gulf War II, the bomb blasts and firestorms, the twisted wreckage and the debris of Baghdad, take us back emotionally to the day we watched the towers turn to dust in New York.

We have internalized that devastation and feel the suffering of the Iraqi people much more intensely this time. The fall of Saddam's statue is one of the great moments of our time. We have kicked the door down but now we must find the lights.

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By Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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