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Baghdad Café
From Bush’s Ox-Bow Mob
So We Have a Hanging

I was reminded of the “Ox-Bow Incident” over the weekend. You know, the 1943 movie that opens with Henry Fonda as a dirty, unhappy cowboy riding into a Nevada town that’s “deader than a Piute’s grave,” and getting swept up in a lynch mob looking for cattle rustlers. The alleged rustlers are tracked down and hanged. It’s pretty obvious to Fonda’s Gil Carter character that they’re innocent. But once unleashed, a mob is a virus on the prowl.

Toward the end Carter reads a letter one of the hanged men had written his wife as parting words. Fonda’s character reads it out loud to his riding partner, his face hidden in shadows. There’s love for the wife, worry over the man’s kids, and there’s the recognition that good men can only do so much against a rabid horde. “Law,” the dead man’s words say from the grave, “is a lot more than words you put in a book or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It’s everything people ever have found out about justice and what’s right and wrong. It’s the very conscience of humanity. There can’t be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience?”

The movie was made in the middle of the American campaign against fascism in World War II. It didn’t do well. Audiences couldn’t get over a sense of feeling cheated. The mob mentality is instinctive and infectious. Despite the heavy-handed message in the movie — vigilantism bad, justice good — there’s always been that apple-pie sympathy for vigilantism in the United States. It’s the kind of git-r-done mentality that grants media fame to glamorous banditry like the Minuteman Project (that band of bigots playing border cops with Mexico), and that once had Teddy Roosevelt blessing the West’s desperados: “The ‘bad men’ or professional fighters and man-killers,” he wrote in 1888, “are of a different stamp [from the common criminal, horse thief or highway robber], quite a number of them being, according to their light, perfectly honest. These are the men who do most of the killing in frontier communities; yet it is a noteworthy fact that the men who are killed generally deserve their fate.” Generally. In other words, the few innocents who end up shot or hanged shouldn’t whine about it, nor should justice fret over it. “The Ox-Bow Incident” fretted too much.

It also challenged audiences more unforgivably. It questioned the American frontier character. And it did so by associating Nazi Germany with Western vigilantism: Without restraint, without deliberate slowness to judge fairly and punish impartially, justice is a fraud. It becomes nothing better than a different version of the crime it set out to punish. That’s not what audiences set out to see at the movies in 1943. Critics appreciated the movie well enough and “The Ox-Bow Incident” was nominated for best picture. But the Oscar went to “ Casablanca ,” the more romantically patriotic classic that had Humphrey Bogart giving Ingrid Bergman the brush-off to save the world from becoming a Nazi gin-joint.

What brought the “Ox-Bow Incident” to mind was Saddam Hussein’s sentencing. He’s to be hanged after a trial that makes Lance Ito’s performance in the O.J. Simpson trial a decade ago look worthy of a Supreme Court appointment in comparison. It’s not just that monkeys and kangaroos would have made for better justice (and a nobler defendant) in Baghdad . But as a trial rich in selectivity and irrelevance — as a prolonged exercise in steaming up the lynch mob waiting outside — Saddam’s is now the model, displacing Stalin’s show-trials of the 1930s.

So we’re getting a hanging. In 2003 Iraq might as well have been deader than a Piute’s grave. Instead, Saddam became a mirror to American hubris gone wild. He devastated his nation for three decades, but if the latest estimates are right, more than twice as many people have died as a result of the American invasion than did as a result of Saddam’s rule going back to the 1970s. Where’s the American conscience now?

Play it any way you like. In 2003, Bush went after the wrong man. There’s no need to split hairs about Saddam’s guilt. But his trial was cynical theater, the verdict a sling-shot at a corpse. It diverts attention from the consequences of Bush’s vigilantism. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been murdered, lynched, tortured, millions displaced, all of them wrongly so. And Bush is celebrating Saddam’s sentencing as “a measure of the justice which many thought would never come” while his cheerleaders wish they could braid Saddam’s rope. Teddy Roosevelt maybe could excuse the blinders. Saner human beings shouldn’t, if crimes against humanity are to mean anything anymore.

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