There is a famous scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy's little dog, Toto, pulls the curtain back, and the illusionary wizard is revealed to be a small and insignificant human being, whose power came solely from the fear he was able to engender in the imagination of those he held in thrall. I thought of this scene Sunday morning when, alerted by a friend's phone call at 7:30, I turned on my TV and saw the unforgettable video of the former dictator of Iraq.
It was not the first time that I had seen his face, of course. Who on our planet had not seen it before? And yet now, how different it looked to me. There was something, shockingly enough, almost pitiable about it. An English correspondent on FOX compared his bearded and disheveled visage to that of King Lear, and the comparison seemed almost apt, until you realized that Lear's worst offense had been the vanity of second childhood, while Saddam's had been the systematic murder and torture of thousands of his own people.
I watched the video of anonymous hands feeling underneath the scruffy beard, probing the way a doctor probes a patient, and I saw that Saddam was saying something to his examiner, and it seemed perfectly possible that his words might have been along the lines of it, "Yes, doc, I've been having sharp pains here for some time." And I thought, how natural. He is in the hands of Americans, and it isn't our style to withhold medical care even from a monster. If he needs dental care, we will no doubt give that to him, too.
As fallen dictators go, Saddam is lucky. He was not strung up and spat upon by the mob, as Mussolini was, but taken out of his squalid little hole, cleaned up and shaved, and is now, no doubt, sitting somewhere quite warm and safe, and most of all, alive.
I say this, not because I have a soft spot in my heart for ruthless tyrants, but because only a living, breathing Saddam Hussein has the power to destroy the illusionary Saddam Hussein that, like The Wizard of Oz, seemed so vastly greater than life size to those whom he had so long terrorized. Just as Dorothy and her friends needed to see the small and insignificant little man feverishly manipulating the switches and pulleys behind curtain, in order to free their minds once and for all of the image of the omnipotent and angry Oz, so the Iraqi people needed to see the small and insignificant little man who had haunted their collective psyche, and who would have continued to haunt it for as long as it was possible for the Iraqis to imagine that, one day, he would return. That fantasy is now dead, once and for all.
But there is another reason to be thankful that Saddam Hussein is alive. The man who called upon his countrymen and fellow Muslims to sacrifice their own lives in suicide attacks, to blow themselves to bits in order to glorify his name, failed to follow his own instructions. He refused the grand opportunity of a martyr's death, or even that of the hardened gangster, determined that the cops would never take him alive. Instead, Saddam Hussein surrendered meekly and was, according to the reports, even cooperative.
We took Saddam Hussein alive, and, in doing this, we have done a great deal more than simply knock down a statue of a dictator -- we have vanquished a collective nightmare. We have turned the light on a bogey-man, and revealed him to be a broken old man, hiding fearfully in a six by eight hole.
We can see now how foolish we were to regret not rubbing him out that first night, when we dropped the bunker-piercing bomb on what we had been told was his hide-out. Had we pulverized him then, he might well have returned to claim a permanent place in the Iraqi imagination, like a kind of Mesopotamian Freddy Krueger. But, luckily, we missed him, and now we can see that there was a providence in our failure -- as so often there is in our ordinary lives as well.
That is the problem of living through history, rather than reading about it when it is over. What at first appears a triumph may be just a prelude to disaster; what at first seems a failure may prove to be merely a necessary step toward a final success. The capture of Saddam Hussein may not prove to be the turning point when, decades from now, we look back on this period; but, for right now, it certainly feels like it.