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Live from Iraq: It's the Saddam Show

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The trial of Saddam Hussein is as much about the appearance as the execution of justice; as important as bringing a former tyrant to account is saying, Look, this is how we do it in a democracy. As the trial has returned to session, the audience watching on TV sets across Iraq is getting a taste of American-style justice, all right. We just hadn’t banked on how much it would look like Judge Judy.

Sitting in the defendants’ box, the former dictator has not just been defiant, he’s been explosive. He’s called the trial a sham and his accusers pawns of the Americans; he’s smirked during stories of atrocities, threatened to boycott the proceedings (a threat he made good on Wednesday, when he refused to appear in court and trial went on without him), and in the capper to the latest day of histrionics, told the judge Tuesday to go to hell. Any minute, you expect him to gesture with a flattened palm and tell the court officers to talk to the hand.

Saddam did not always seem like the cleverest manipulator of the media as president—he hired Baghdad Bob, after all—but he did have a sense of the importance of the cameras as when, during the first Gulf War, his government took pains to make collateral-damage sites available to video crews. Clearly he’s aware of the TV audience now, and, perhaps, is trying to stab from hell’s heart with the last weapon he has remaining.

It will be interesting to see whether it works. Certainly if the goal was to show Hussein meek, passive and humiliated, he’s countered that. But while the trial has shown him as fiery and unbowed, it has also oddly diminished him. The courtroom is modest and mundane-looking, and with his unkempt appearance and oddly casual Western dress, he looks like a retiree, not the new incarnation of the Babylonian kings. And even as he takes shots at the trial process and the Americans, he can sound unhinged and even petty: after one witness described being tortured at Dujail, he complained about the size of the "iron cage" he’s being held in.

The audience in Iraq will have to evaluate his performance, a judgment as important as any the court will make. But likely they’ll take away at least one lesson about Western-style justice. We may not always give you an inspiring trial or your preferred verdict. But we sure know how to put on a show.