The inevitable assassination of Saddam Hussein will be a public spectacle intended to reassure an insecure America -- but it won't end the guerrilla war in Iraq.
To judge from the excited build-up, Saddam Hussein will be killed very soon. Once his location is identified, the spectacle of his death can soon be orchestrated. To have the greatest impact, perhaps it will be televised in all time zones on a weekday, avoiding the competition of weekend sports. There must be burnt offerings and a triumphal revelation of the corpse. For an insecure America, this killing will be a "ritual of blood," a "compact of fellowship" -- terms used by West Indian sociologist Orlando Patterson in the context of ritual lynchings in the Old South.
"American military confidence has increased notably since the deaths of Mr. Hussein's sons in a shootout in the northern city of Mosul," reports the New York Times. So has the confidence of the neo-conservatives, none of whom has served in combat, as well as that of the chattering classes.
Most important, the coming televised ritual death of Saddam Hussein is meant to console the families of the 116 GIs who have been killed in Iraq since Apr. 9, the day of the ritual destruction of Saddam's statue in Baghdad. They will be encouraged to feel that their sons have not died in vain.
The Iraqi people, on the other hand, are seen by the Pentagon as the frightened villagers in "The Wizard of Oz." Once they sing "Ding dong, the wicked witch is dead," they will shake off their fears and sign up for their duties in the new order: to work happily for Bechtel and Halliburton and start policing their malcontents.
Thomas Friedman, the ever-breezy prophet of this new order, is becoming testy toward these reluctant Iraqis. He expects them "to prove that they really can work together and are willing to sacrifice for the chance to rule themselves. (Why are we offering them $55 million in rewards for finding Saddam and his sons? They should be paying us!)"
Paul Wolfowitz, just returned from Iraq, laments that most of all "what we need are Iraqis fighting with us," against other Iraqis. These expressions of imperial impatience echo Winston Churchill who, as British colonial secretary, described Iraq as an "ungrateful volcano."
It has been a bad summer for the Pentagon and the White House, but Saddam's death could be their summer hit. Nothing the growing number of critics can say compares to the potential public gratification and fortification of righteousness that the White House hopes to generate by the coming assassination. That the administration lied, that the occupation costs $4 billion per month, that we have antagonized our allies, that thousands of Iraqis are collateral damage -- all these venial sins will be forgiven, they assume, when Saddam is dead and gone. To seal the victory, at some later date, weapons of mass destruction will be discovered, both Bush and Blair assure us. That prospect should finish off the lingering critics and set the stage for a triumphal November 2004.
But what if the master plan is left unfulfilled? It seems unlikely, but Saddam may elude the Delta posse or already be dead. Or what if the pursuit climaxes in Saddam's ritual death, but the chaos in Iraq continues unabated? What if Saddam, living or dead, is not the deux ex machina behind the daily shootings and woundings of American soldiers? What if the occupiers are facing a vengeful Iraqi nationalism, not the remnants of the old regime?
There is an opening for the peace movement here. If and when Saddam is killed the question becomes, "Why should American troops continue to die if the dictator is dead?" If the ritual symbolizes victory, why shouldn't the American troops come home and leave the rest to the Iraqis? Why shouldn't Paul Bremer III declare victory, set a date for a national Iraqi election and a parallel American troop withdrawal? Or are American troops dying for purposes other than overthrowing the dictatorship?
That's a question the White House will have to answer if the resistance continues under the banner of "No to Saddam, No to America."