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(The Hamilton Spectator – January 24, 2004)

SANA’A, YEMEN – So, we’ll soon see the mother of all trials hit the fan like a fat lady stuck with an enema. Forget O.J. or Jacko or second-rate dictator Slobodan Milosevic. The trial of Saddam Hussein promises to be the courtroom event of our time.

CNN. Al Jazeera. BBC. Let’s hope everyone is there. The CBC, too, for that knowing Canadian perspective.

And why not? Mussolini was lynched. Hitler shot his own brains out. Mao and Pol Pot and Stalin all died old, without tribunal. In terms of a decent, despot trial, we really got ripped off in the 20th century.

But now, can you see Saddam consulting his lawyers on what to wear that big, first day? It will all be so very surreal. And what do they think in Yemen about the Butcher of Baghdad, recently demoted from mythical evil to shabby figure in need of a major shave, a haircut and a place for his suitcase of American cash?

“Like at the end of any good story, the hero should die” is how my Yemeni landlord sees it. Did you get that? The hero.

Indeed, Saddam likely will seize the global spotlight to go down as the great Arab superman who could have saved Islam from the Bushies and the Jews. Sadly, some Arabs will buy this, while others — the odd cab driver here in Yemen for example — still can’t admit it’s actually Saddam in custody.

Granted, even otherwise reasonable people, like our landlord, an educated pharmacist, can believe the wildest things. After his expressed view about Saddam’s fate, he told Jean and me that U.S. Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice is the world’s seventh richest woman, thanks to income from the many bomb factories she owns.

Then he added, with extra zest, “And she’s Jewish.”

That’s when Jean, who usually shows uncommon grace in the midst of strange behavior, burst into laugher and asked him if he’s noticed Rice’s skin colour lately.

“Well,” he relinquished, “she acts like she’s Jewish.”

Keep honour. Avoid shame. That’s what’s Saddam’s trial will be about, because, quite frankly, that’s what everything is about in this part of the world.

It’s the axis on which certain cultures spin, the fig leaves that certain people and groups choose for cover.

Yes, some Yemenis believe Saddam attacked Kuwait in 1990 because, well, the Americans forced him to. Others claim Jews brought down the Twin Towers, and that 4,000 Jews didn’t go to work there on Sept. 11, 2001, because they knew what would hit.

Such dizzy theories are one result of the terrible lack of trust, even among families, that’s so deeply rooted in Arab-Muslim culture. People grow up in fear. And with a stinging poverty of dignity. As an observer here, I can’t say enough how important it is for the West to grasp this. In today’s war of ideas, and in international relations in general, humiliation is the most underrated force.

Yes, Saddam’s trial may be a circus. It will be hard not to pull out the popcorn and grab a front row seat. But international prosecutors simply can’t afford to debase Saddam to the extent that will disgrace other Arabs who already feel like their face is in the mud.

Of course, some Iraqis themselves will want justice at the gallows. But swinging Saddam from a rope won’t bring anyone lasting dignity, either. Revenge is a need of people who feel powerless, a raw emotion that tends to go when their sense of impotence goes. No, the real needs of Iraqis are much deeper.

Besides, if they were not collaborators, some western governments were at least benefactors of the ruin that Saddam wrought during parts of his 30-year-reign. If it’s half-fair, Saddam’s trial will also put these sins on the table.

Wherever things go, let’s hope that any Saddam-like spirit of hatred isn’t left to linger anywhere. Hate won’t help Iraqis rebuild on new ground. And it will only entrench the dark hero status that some mixed-up folks already give Saddam.

In the end, dictators are terribly weak and cowardly monsters. To be properly exposed, they need to be tried in a court that rises above such things itself.