drinking to the deaths of dictators

…a Draconian practice easily imagined in other times, embraced in antiquated civilizations, an act that on the cusp of 2007, some optimists might venture to say should be behind us…


by matthew rinaldi


News of Saddam Hussein’s impending execution managed to reach us in the mountains of Brazil, roughly 70 miles outside of the country’s main metropolitan center, in a disconnected rural municipality composed of farms, sitios and pousadas, with no internet, cable TV or cell-phone signals, where the public television options, aside from the dominant Globo network, were made up of evangelical Christian programming, cattle auctions and less-than-modest chatline infomercials. There in the middle of nowhere we got the word. After a scattering of guffaws -“Already?” “I heard he’d been sentenced but I thought it’d take months” “What about the appeals process? I thought prisoners were usually on death row for years”-we cracked beers and settled in front of the flashing tube, as the minutes counted down to 1 a.m. Brasilia time, 6 a.m. Baghdad time, waiting for confirmation that it had happened. Jornal a Noite displayed an endless loop of Saddam footage-images of the man in the ’80s, ’70s, Gulf War I era, smiling as he greeted ambassadors and fellow Mideast heads of state, holding up a specialty gold-plated machine gun for the flashing cameras, as the Brazilian television anchor went through the general announcements, iterating the sound-bytes in Portuguese and trying his best to keep the repetitiveness to a minimum. Soon, they had switched directly to the CNN feed with images of Anderson Cooper, the caption in the lower right corner reading Death of a Dictator, as he and two other talking heads bantered, kicking up audible dust as they waited for the go-ahead to verify for viewers that the deed had been done. As we viewed the seemingly endless Saddam montage, the local Brazilian anchor doing a simultaneous translation, relaying what was being said on the cable news giant, making a point to emphasize that the majority of the world’s nations opposed the impending execution and that Brazil itself had issued an official statement condemning it. “Do you think this guy’s gonna go out for a beer afterwards to celebrate-or do you think he’s against it?” Fla asked, pointing her chin at the baby-faced anchorman on the screen.

Good question. And even if this prematurely gray choir-boy before us chose not to raise a glass to the Death of a Dictator, there would be no shortage of those who would-on this night and for years to come.

A toast to the death of our enemies-an act of malice, springing from basest vengeance-seeking instincts, a Draconian practice easily imagined in other times, embraced in antiquated civilizations, an act that on the cusp of 2007, some optimists might venture to say should be behind us.

Others more cynical didn’t hesitate to share their opinions.

“Look how different Saddam looks here.” Referring to the fleshy-face under the beret, around the time of his “mother-of-all” quotes. “Now look at him here.” The sunken-cheeked, long-eared demagogue in the courtroom.

“That would be a great story-if they’d just produced this guy-“

“You mean a Saddam double?”

“Yeah, why not? Took a reasonable facsimile, put him in the hole, put in the court room and then the execution in front of the world, that no one could really witness.” It was reported that no journalists, no cameramen, would be allowed at the scene.

“I mean what if he’d just been killed in the bombing-an anonymous corpse?”

“That would look better then.”

“Would it? There would be no have no images of him disgraced. No trial, no justice.”

“So this is justice then?”

Silence. Beers sipped. Belches.

“It’s a shame.”

“What? You like Saddam?” Fla asked, one eye-brow cocked.

“I’m definitely not a fan but come on, executing him now is just a bad idea. He’s a witness to history.”

“They’re burning the files. Do you use that expression in English?” I was asked directly.

“Not usually. But I guess it works in this case.”

“’Witness to history.’ So what? What about Pinochet? Don’t you think that son of a bitch should have been executed? Wasn’t he a witness to history?”

“It’s a different situation. Saddam’s a witness to history that’s still being written-history in dispute. And executing him at that moment, there’s more chance that he’ll become a martyr for a lot of people.”

Truly a contrast, the ways in which these two murderous dictators-despised by millions, while adored by a minority that they favored, having risen to power thanks to the convenience they represented to the U.S. who supplied both with firepower, manpower, financial and political support, both consolidating their rule with iron-fisted brutality-met their end.

When the news broke of Augusto Pinochet’s death in Santiago, celebratory street demonstrations erupted while, in sharp contrast, a lesser number of devotees led tearful vigils, marching with photos in hand-these manifestations of two pointedly different reactions eventually giving way to violent conflict. In Brazil, the celebrations were limited to joyous cheers erupting from sidewalk boteca tables, glasses of beer raised, clinking into others as the news was shared-gestures of fleeting exuberance much like those that followed news of the murder of Colonel Ubiratan Guimarães months earlier, the man who commanded massacre of 111 prisoners in 1992, a man whose own exoneration in a court of law was widely considered blatantly unjust.

Perhaps the guilty pleasure at celebrating a death lies in the relative justice or injustice that their death represents. As in the case of Colonel Ubiratan as much as Pinochet, the fact of their deaths inspired a sad stillborn sort of schadenfreude in the populations, as if taking joy in their pain could compensate for the pain they had inflicted on others.

Throughout Latin America Pinochet’s end prompted raised glasses, cheers, and street gatherings, in some areas more fervent than others-but all such celebrations were tempered with the knowledge that at 91, the man lived longer and larger than most, that his death is a bitter reminder of justice deferred. While we can celebrate the fact that the world might be a better place without him, its occurrence at this moment in history is a triumph for him and all his regime represents. On December 11th, on the streets of Santiago, a Chilean woman heralding a placard photograph of just one young man who’d gone missing defiantly proclaimed. “Today Time has prevailed where Justice could not. And Justice needs to ask itself why it was beaten by Time.”

Saddam’s death is different. He was arrested, brought to justice and forced to face the consequences of his acts-his execution was meant to be remembered as an act of swift justice served. Perhaps too swift. Ironically it’s that rush, that haste, to do the deed and get it over that has tinged the justice of the thing. Could Justice in its incredible haste have managed to defeat itself?

Though there will doubtlessly many more toasting to Saddam Hussein’s death than his life now and the future, there is a certain reluctance, as if whatever justice in the act remains overshadowed by the ongoing turmoil, the struggle for moral authority, that has clouded this toast, and this dangerous ambiguity that exists has a potential to grow.

At the very least, we took solace in the fact that the man directly responsible for this rushed execution and everything that went along with it, perhaps out of a vengeful homage to his earthly father or as a much decried French journalist put it “to issue a huge Oedipal challenge (I’ll do what he [my father] couldn’t do-I’ll obey another father, who is higher than my own, and who inspires me to actions he couldn’t inspire in my father),” would not be able to raise any of his former favorite poisons, whether it be a bottle of Bud, Busch, Miller, a glass of whiskey, vodka, gin or even the priciest hangover-proof champagne, in a toast to the death of his enemy-at least not publicly.

Then the confirmation came, from Anderson Cooper’s lips-translated verbatim by the Brazilian anchor. Would he drink to it? It was hard to say-no real signs of joy, or relief on his young face. Could it be-that old cliché, virtually outdated, laughed off by jaded witnesses to 21st century corporate-sponsored mass media journalism, rearing its head-objectivity?

“I’m not sure if he’s old enough to drink anyway.

Originally published:
Issue Forty-Seven
February 2007


(illustrations: kurt eisenlohr)

Matthew Rinaldi was born in Hartford, CT. He studied English Lit at Fordham University Lincoln Center in New York and now lives in São Paulo Brazil, where he makes his living as a teacher and a translator. He wrote a few chapters for a travel book called Rum & Reggae Brazil and has also published essays in Gobshite.

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