Amherst College Professor Lawrence Douglas Says Hussein Trial “Not a Complete Sham”

November 7, 2006
Director of Media Relations
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AMHERST, Mass.—“The trial of Saddam Hussein was not a complete sham,” writes Lawrence Douglas, associate professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought at Amherst College, in The Jurist, but “it won’t do simply to focus on the quality of the justice dispensed. For the trial had other goals, and we need to ask whether these were accomplished. Chief among these was the didactic purpose of the trial.” A leading scholar of War Crimes trials, Douglas is the author of The Memory of Judgment: Making Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust (2001).

“Like the Nuremberg, Eichmann and Papon trials, the Hussein proceeding meant to clarify the historical record; it sought to give an accounting to an Iraqi and international audience of the crimes perpetrated by Saddam’s regime,” Douglas says. “Here, however, the trial stumbled. In part, this was a result of the very focus of the trial. Eager to establish a manageable case, the prosecution focused on a relatively minor act—the reprisal killings of 148 Shiites in Dujail in 1982. While this narrow focus might have made prosecutorial sense, the crimes themselves pale in comparison to the violence that grips the Iraqi nation on a daily basis. This fact alone creates a strong case for delaying Saddam’s execution until the completion of his present trial for atrocities committed against Iraqi Kurds during the Anfal military campaign in the late 1980s. That trial at least promises to do fuller justice to the abominable crimes of Saddam’s regime.”

“The didactic value” of this proceeding “was also upset by Saddam’s showmanship,” Douglas writes. “Stealing a page from the playbook of Slobodan Milosevic, whose death in March deprived the Hague Tribunal from ever passing judgment, Saddam showed himself more than adept at disrupting proceedings.”

“By upstaging the trial as a didactic exercise, Saddam also undermined its function as a tool of reconciliation,” but it’s too early to call the Hussein trial a failure, Douglas writes, noting that “in the decades directly following the Nuremberg trial, the majority of Germans viewed the trial with contempt, as an exercise in victor’s justice. Now Nuremberg is generally viewed in Germany with respect—as an event that prodded Germans to a collective reckoning with their troubled past.”

“At the heart of these [Holocaust] trials,” Douglas wrote in The Memory of Judgment in2001, “lay competing conceptions of the law itself. On one hand, the trials sought to introduce sober, rule-bound authority into a terrain of lawlessness by bringing perpetrators of atrocity to justice. On the other hand, the trials sought to serve the interests of history and memory.” Douglas’s 2001 book considered the leading trials of the perpetrators and deniers of the Holocaust—the first Nuremberg trial, the trials of Adolf Eichmann and Ivan Demjanjuk in Israel, the French trial of Klaus Barbie and the Canadian trials of Holocaust negationist Ernst Zundel. He demonstrated that some trials, such as Nuremberg and Eichmann’s, succeeded in serving both justice and history, while others, such as the Zundel and Demjanuk trials, failed Douglas defends trials of “traumatic history” as “dramatic and necessary acts of legal and social will.”

A professor at Amherst since 1990, Douglas received an A.B. degree from Brown University, an M.A. from Columbia and a J.D. from Yale Law School. His essays and commentary have appeared in numerous publications, including The Washington Post, The Boston Globe Magazine, The TLS and The New Republic.

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Peter Rooney
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