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The Saddam Doctrine
Embracing Our Relative Goodness
by Allan Uthman

 

The detective peered at me. "You're sure you don't want to say anything yet? She'll be coming right back with the cigarettes, really."

"Yeah," I said, absentmindedly rubbing my wrist where the handcuffs were digging into my skin. "I'm inclined to believe you, but I just want to make sure, you know? I'm fiending pretty hard." I managed a weak smile. "I'll tell you everything as soon as-"

The door opened, revealing a rather haggard female police officer nonchalantly smacking a pack of rather expensive cigarettes against her palm. She opened the pack and handed it to the detective, who lit one and handed it to me. Eagerly I sucked on it, savoring the deliciously unadulterated poison smoke. The door swung shut, muting the cacophonous din outside the room, and shrouding us in relative silence. Now the detective fixed his eyes on mine.

"All right then," he said, let's have it. What happened?"

"Hold on." I took another drag and pondered the question.

It all started during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib. The Arab world (and the rest of it) was up in arms about the depraved brutality displayed in the now-famous pictures. But a lot of people on my TV, from pundits to politicians, were making an important point: as badly as we may have treated those people, it still wasn't close to the kind of messed-up torture Saddam would have inflicted upon them. In fact, it wasn't even really close. Saddam used acid, pulled out fingernails, all kinds of sick crap. Our crap wasn't half as sick. Yep, as our leaders took pains to make clear, we were definitely morally superior to Saddam Hussein. And al Qaeda. Hitler, too.

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma wasn't outraged at the pictures; he was "more outraged at the outrage." He summed up his case succinctly: "I would guess that these prisoners wake up every morning thanking Allah that Saddam Hussein is not in charge of these prisons."

Or take it from Connecticut's Republicrat Senator Joe Lieberman. "There's not going to be any investigation by any Al Qaeda legislative body of how that happened," Joe said about the decapitation of American Nicholas Berg. Hey, yeah, that's right! Comparing our methods of killing prisoners with that of the al Qaeda stand-ins in the Berg video, Lieberman asserted, "We have the moral high ground."

The clarion call had been sounded, and the fair and balanced newsmen chimed in. Rush, Hannity, Scarborough, et al were all on the same page-we had nothing to be sorry for, as long as we equated the abused prisoners with the people who brought us 9/11, and ourselves with the people who used to do the torturing in the same prison. We may have been brutal and uncivilized, but not as much so as Saddam.

Soon, my head was spinning, and I went to my local for a pick-me-up or three. Alas, I should have known; there's no escaping the idiot box, and the same damn news channel was on the tube at the bar. Every jerk there was echoing the new mantra. "What, would they rather have Saddam back in power?" said a paunchy, bearded drunk sitting next to me.

I knocked back a shot and pulled on my beer. I knew I shouldn't engage the guy, but I couldn't help myself. "But don't you think we should hold ourselves to a higher standard than that?" I asked him.

"Hell no," he said. "Aren't you paying attention? He just said that we can't hold high moral standards if we're going to whip these guys' asses. They don't give a damn, right? I mean, do you think those guys that cut that guy's head off feel bad?"

"Yeah, but remember after 9/11? We were all worried about 'letting the terrorists win.' If we lived in fear, we were letting them win. If we reduced ourselves to their savage level, we were letting them win. Hell, if we missed "Friends" or bought a compact car we were letting them win. Now we're shoving things up these guys' asses, making them blow each other and urinating on them, and you're saying that's OK. Isn't that letting the terrorists win?"

The drunk turned to face me,his dilated pupils fixing intently on my face. "Listen, smart-ass," he said threateningly, "I'm telling you: if we don't torture these guys, we're letting them win. I'm beginning to wonder if maybe you wouldn't rather see Saddam in power again. Where are you from anyway, man?"

"West side," I said, quickly pounding my beer. "Nice talking; gotta go."

Outside it was still daylight, and my senses reeled as the alcohol hit me-I'm a lightweight, and I hadn't eaten yet. What's worse, I was out of smokes. Heading to the nearest corner store, I wondered about what the scary drunk had said. Was it true? Was there a new American standard of criminal behavior? Had I myself been living by too stringent a code of behavior? Think of it: a new age of personal freedom, where we no longer needed to aspire to be as good as Jesus, or Martin Luther King, or some other impossibly high standard, but could feel good about ourselves as long as we weren't arranging helicopter crashes to eliminate our annoying relatives or poisoning our enemies. Already I could feel a new source of pride swelling within me. I was better than the worst; much better, really. All in all, the feeling was very…liberating.

An electronic bell chimed as I stumbled through the door at the store. A balding man of indiscriminate middle eastern descent came out from the back and stood behind the counter. "Hello," he said, smiling, "help you?" Strange, foreign music filtered in from the room he had just exited. An unfamiliar odor of incense lingered faintly.

"Uh, yeah," I said, "box of Winston lights."

"Winton? Eh?" said the man. It clearly wasn't a familiar brand to him.

"Yeah, Winston-over there," I pointed.

"Eh? Here?" he said.

"No, man," I said, growing impatient. "There-there to the left."

"Let? Eh?"

I was losing it. I kept pointing, and after an agonizing process of elimination settled for Camels. Reaching into my pocket, I realized I'd left my last ten on the bar. I had four singles left-close, but no cigarettes.

Damn. The shopkeeper looked at me expectantly. He looked like a terrorist, I thought. Not like any individual one, but his features were generally similar to the many grainy passport photos that John Ascroft and the FBI had shown me over the last two or so years. I thought about Iraq, about Abu Ghraib. Put a bag on this guy's head and strip him naked, and he'd look just like any of those guys in that human pyramid.

"Anything else?" he said, competently pronouncing a phrase he was no doubt familiar with.

I thought about Saddam. What a jerk. It felt good to know that I really could never be that bad. I thought about being broke. I didn't know how long it would be before I got paid again, and I was hungry. It wasn't fair-Saddam robbed his people blind, and lived high on the hog, while a decent guy like me had to struggle for every scrap. But it was all relative now. A little stealing wasn't so bad, was it?

Suddenly it all fell into place. I felt something snap in my head, and I surrendered to the moral ramifications of the Saddam Doctrine. I was an American, and I needed to feel secure-financially secure.

"Yeah, um, do have any…ice?" I asked, knowing full well that he did.
"Ice, yes," he said, pointing toward a back corner.

"Can you show me?"

He looked at me quizzically. "Okay," he said and led me to the freezer. He opened the door and I grabbed a bag. It was heavy and felt sharp and cold in my hands.

"Could you grab me two more, please?" I asked.

"Okay," he said, dutifully picking up two bags, shutting the door and turning around to walk back to the counter.

"Thanks," I said, as I slammed the bag down full force on his head. The bag split open and ice cubes broke apart and spread willy-nilly across the linoleum floor. The shopkeeper crumpled into a heap without a sound, like a marionette with its strings cut. His scalp was bleeding badly, but I kicked him a couple of times in the ribs to make sure he was really out. "Still well above testing chemical weapons on your own subjects," I thought. Already, I could see that the new and seductive rationalization was helping me live my life to the fullest.

I cleaned out the register, making sure to grab the big bills under the drawer. I went for the Winstons, thought better of it, and grabbed a stack of American Spirit blues. As I booked out the door, I could hear my victim moaning softly. He wasn't dead--another score for American moral superiority.

* * * * *

"So, help us understand," said the detective, lighting another one of my recently acquired slow-burning beauties. "What caused you to do this? Why is everyone going nuts today?"

I took a long drag with my free hand, and reflected on my predicament. Just like our heroes in Abu Ghraib, my misbehavior had been exposed by the menace of modern video technology. Once again, our culture's obsession with laws was giving the evildoers the advantage. Instead of sniffing out sleeper cells, my city's law enforcement officials were wasting my taxes by arresting and interrogating me--clearly a less dangerous man than those who hate our freedom. I mean, the guy was fine, anyway, or he would be.

"Look, it wasn't like I gave him an acid bath or anything," I said, exhaling. "It's just not fair. How are we supposed to fight these people if we're expected to obey laws?"

Someone bumped against the door from the outside, momentarily startling the cops. The police station was a madhouse, swamped with new arrivals who had also taken the Saddam Doctrine to heart.

"It's not that we don't agree with you, but we can't have people just running mad in the streets," said the detective. "You understand that, don't you?"

"All I understand," I said, "is that you guys are picking on me, when there are people out there doing much worse things. It's a clear double standard! I mean, would you prefer that Saddam was returned to power?"

The officers looked at each other. "he's right, you know," said one. "His kids used to kidnap women and have their husbands killed. We should let him go."

"Yeah, you can't really argue with that," said another.

The detective put his hand to his forehead and sighed. "Okay, Mr. Uthman, we're going to let you go, just as soon as this interrogation's over."

I was elated. "Wow, that's great, guys! Thanks!" What else can I tell you?"

"Well," he said as he got up and locked the door, "we still need to know what's causing this outbreak of violence, and we need to make sure you're not holding out on us." The other officers were putting on gloves and smiling evilly.

I was getting nervous. "Well, like I told you, I was acting alone. I figure probably everyone else is just coming to the same conclusions I did. Beyond that, I really can't tell you anything, I swear."

"We know, we know," said the detective, "and, to be honest, I'm inclined to believe you. But we really need to be sure, you understand." Now the other cops were pulling stuff out of a closet. Nightsticks, chains--and a hood.

"Jesus," I said, horrified. "What the hell are those things for?"

"Don't worry," he said, "it'll be all right--it's not like we're Saddam Hussein or anything."