The Meaning of POW Hussein

Of all the most ruthless tyrants of the 20th-century - such as Stalin, Hitler, Mao, or Pol Pot - who caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of innocent people in their own countries, Saddam Hussein is different.

He has been caught, and now faces trial.

Nabbing Mr. Hussein brings at least some justice to the past century's horrific record of mass elimination of citizens by their own dictators - a record in which none of the worst perpetrators was ever held to account in a court.

Until now. The image of this fallen dictator's cowardice after being caught should even give the world more courage to act without hesitation in the future if faced with another large-scale atrocity by a totalitarian regime.

Under Stalin, the death toll in the Soviet Union was some 27 million. Hitler was responsible for the killing of 6 million Jews and many others under Nazi rule. Mao's actions led to more than 30 million Chinese dying. In Pol Pot's tiny Cambodia, an estimated 20 percent of the people perished, either by execution or wholesale malign neglect.

Mr. Hussein's killing record may be between 300,000 and a million (out of 23 million Iraqis), depending on the count of mass graves now going on.

Such large numbers aren't merely "human rights violations." They are in their own (im)moral class.

Through the late 20th century and up until now, the world has largely stood by as some 2 million civilians have died in Sudan's civil war, and as upwards of 2 million people have starved or been executed in North Korea under the cruel hand of the Kim dynasty. Both crises so far have defied diplomatic solutions.

The 1994 slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda made the world wring its hands over its own inaction and pushed the United Nations to consider a policy of violating national sovereignty in the case of a massive crisis.

The West's passivity during the attempted genocide in Rwanda helped push the United States and NATO to attack Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia for the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo. That led to an uprising by Serbs that forced Mr. Milosevic into an international court.

By comparison with the big 20th-century atrocities, however, the numbers killed under Milosevic were small. Europeans felt those killings had to be stopped largely because they were occurring in their backyard. Similar slaughters in Africa, such as in Liberia, hardly got the same Western response.

Hussein's capture helps bring hope that the world can end this peculiar category of 20th- century history: mass killing of innocents under the reign of one ruler, for whatever reason. Modern weapons, modern "isms," and modern political tactics have made such huge atrocities all too easy. The world needs to find more robust ways to stop these national tyrants, short of war. It has a large toolbox, such as imposing economic sanctions or supporting local activists. The recent convictions for genocide of some Rwandan leaders by a UN court might deter the world's remaining tyrants.

And with Al Qaeda threatening to repeat the Sept. 11 attacks on a larger scale with weapons of mass destruction, the world has yet another challenge in preventing a new form of mass slaughter of civilians - one not contained within a single nation.

The rejoicing over Hussein's capture reflects relief that one of these modern-age mass murderers has at last been nabbed, and a hope that such giant tragedies will fade into the pages of the last century's history.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.