One of LI’s brothers has always been pretty core pacifist. So we were surprised, talking with him a few days ago, when he said he didn’t understand why they were trying Saddam. “Why din’t they just kill him when they captured him?”
An interesting idea. LI is generally opposed to the death penalty. When the Marquis de Sade was briefly made a judge during the French Revolution, he distinguished himself by opposing all death sentences. This was entirely consonant with Sade’s philosophy, which held that since the state institutionalized joylessness, there could be no pleasure in a state sponsored killing. The Sadeian moralist approves of private homicides because they are pleasurable to the murderer, but disapproves strongly of those killings that result from duty, because – and on this Sade agrees with Kant – it isn’t.
Sade’s too-cruel-to-be-kindness obviously lost the ideological battle during the revolution. New regimes, as de Maistre and Michel Foucault knew, must plant themselves on the murdered corpses of old regimes. Freud might have been wrong, historically, about the primal horde, but he was right to sense that the legitimacy of power depends on the crucial transgression of that moral imperative: thou shalt not kill. The question is, what serves that purpose best – the predetermined trial and execution, or the more summary butchery.
Take the case of the Romanovs. Much cold war weeping was shed over their squalid fates. This weeping had the political motivation of hanging a mark of illegitimacy around the Soviets. It had the more practical effect of disguising the Romanov reign of crime: the massacres of 1905 and the criminal prosecution of the war, for example. If any pair of monarchs deserved the guillotine, it was this terrible twosome. It was telling and typical that one of the books discovered upon Alexandria’s bedroom table after she was shot was the Protocols of the Elders of Zion – no doubt this was not her first reading. In her husband’s diary, he records turning to it for solace in the first weeks after his deposing.
Trotsky, apparently, pushed for a trial for the Romanovs, to be broadcast over the radio. Yes, that is right, Trotsky is the godfather of Courtroom TV, Cops, and Judge Judy.
However, as the White Counter-revolution mounted a real threat to the Bolsheviks, the fate of the Romanovs came together out of improvisation, haste, and incompetence.
For all of Trotsky’s attempt to find parallels between the French Revolution and the 1918 revolution, the end of the Romanov family was more like the archly villainous path to power forged by Shakespeare’s Richard III than the people’s theatre he envisioned.
Here’s the account from the regicide who managed the butchery:
“In April of 1918, the family and some of their entourage were moved from Siberia to Ekaterinburg in the Ural mountains. On July 17, after midnight, the family was woken up and led to a basement room along with four aides. Aleksei and Alexandra were given chairs. A group of armed men entered the room, and a local commander announced that, by order of the regional soviet committee, they were all to be shot.
Yakov Yurovsky, the commander, later wrote: "The others then made a few incoherent exclamations.... Then the shooting started." The tsar was killed instantly by the first bullet; Alexandra died next. The rest were shot in the following two or three minutes. Aleksei and three of his sisters were not killed instantly and "had to be shot again." The last daughter was still not dead after the second round of bullets. "When they tried to finish off one of the girls with bayonets, the bayonet could not pierce the corset. Thanks to all this, the entire procedure ... took around 20 minutes."
Apparently, Yurovsky never got over that night. He had the further misfortune of having to supervise the disposal of the bodies himself. The daughters, it turned out, had sewn diamonds into their corsets and had little lockets with Rasputin’s picture around their necks.
Here’s what Trotsky said about Nicholas:
"He did not know how to wish: that was his chief trait of character," says a reactionary French historian of Louis. Those words might have been written of Nicholas: neither of them knew how to wish, but both knew how to not wish. But what really could be "wished" by the last representatives of a hopelessly lost historic cause? " Usually he listened, smiled, and rarely decided upon anything. His first word was usually No.” Of whom is that written? Again of Capet. But if this is so, the manners of Nicholas were an absolute plagiarism. They both go toward the abyss "with the crown pushed down over their eyes.” But would it after all be easier to go to an abyss, which you cannot escape anyway, with your eyes open? What difference would it have made, as a matter of fact, if they had pushed the crown way back on their heads?”
Trotsky’s point is that Russian history had reached a juncture in which the impossibility of cazrist governance was structural, not personal.
In 1998, Yeltsin supervised a farcical ceremony commemorating the reburial of the royal corpses, and wept tears that were some combination of crocodile and vodka before getting back to the serious business of pilfering Russia and massacring Chechnyians.
If there is a lesson in this tale of blood and kitsch, it is that the primal horde best take care to murder the father openly, and with ceremony. The Soviets managed to make a regicide that would have won the hearty approval of Oliver Cromwell into a matter of shame.
One wonders where the balance of shame will be in the trial of Hussein. It is bad news that the IGC, in one of its last paroxysms of bad policy, left the direction of the trial to Ahmed Chalabi’s nephew. The NYT reports that the Bush administration views the trial as a possible model for developing some other than international system of jurisprudence to try crimes against humanity. In the typical hamhanded fashion of the CPA, Hussein is being charged with the crime of invading Kuwait, but not Iran, thereby sending the message that if you are going to wage a war of disastrous aggression and kill 500,000 people, be sure to buy your arms from approved Western dealers.
It is the Kuwait charge that makes us think that the trial of Saddam is supposed to be doubly legitimizing. But there is an inherent contradiction between the needs of the Americans to once again point to Kuwait and the need of the Iraqis for a universal condemnation of the total sum of Hussein’s acts. Given the intransigence of the Kuwaitis and the Saudis, lately, about the war reparations they want to extract from the current government, we think that this might be yet another major CPA misjudgment. Out of such cultural clashes grow the armed variety.