06/28/2006 09:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Cartoon Despots

The killing of Saddam Hussein's third defense lawyer last Friday reminds us that everything that's wrong with the war in Iraq is embedded in the undisciplined Ringling Brothers event that his trial has become.

Instead of encouraging the world to wrestle with the question of whether there is any justification for America's invasion, the trial has turned into something out of WrestleMania. Except the violence is real and the stakes are higher. You've got outbursts, smackdowns, insults, wild histrionics, and Ramsey Clark on the sidelines.

This could have been the twenty-first century's answer to the Eichmann trial, an event that the Israeli government stage-managed brilliantly. After taking a global hit when Mossad used a kind of moral eminent domain to pluck Eichmann out of Argentina, the 14-week trial -- which was televised around the world -- turned the Holocaust into the first world-wide brand for bottomless evil. It was also strategic and pedagogical -- educating the world and making a blunt but unspoken argument for the existence of Israel.

With a bulletproof glass panel in front of him -- symbolizing that his testimony was too important for revenge-seekers to shut down -- Eichmann's defense became a volcanic catalyst for debate. Hannah Arendt, who covered the trial for the New Yorker, famously lit upon the phrase "banality of evil" to describe Eichmann which served to a) define a specific kind of counter-flamboyant, bureaucratic cog, b) make her more famous than her love letters to Martin Heidegger would ever have accomplished, c) encourage Stanley Milgram to perform his "Obedience to Authority" shock-the-subject test, known to every Psych 101 student.

Shockingly, the Bushies were planning for this even before they found Hussein writing his poetry deep within a hole in the ground. Weapons of mass destruction aside, this was to be their moral moment -- and an opportunity for the new government of Iraq to prove itself on the world stage. In July of 2004, in a story for the New York Times Sunday magazine, Peter Landesman quotes Paul Wolfowitz as opining "It goes without saying Saddam's trial is going to be one of the most important trials of the last hundred years, including Eichmann."

They could have created a trial with drama and dignity, a contrast to the lawlessness outside, raising our sympathy for a new government struggling to do what's right. But anarchy was permitted to invade the courtroom. So instead of historic courtroom drama we have legendary courtroom comedy. Saddam storms out. Tarik Aziz shows up his in pajamas (can you imagine Judge Judy tolerating that?) When Marx said that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce, I don't think he was talking about it happening in the same news cycle. (We've also reached a level of farce in New York, with Larry Silverstein and the Port Authority, a duo of moral compasses, now suing the insurance companies.)

Conservatives gripe about the media, about the coarsening of society, about the decay in values, about relativism. Meanwhile, on their watch they've botched their bring-to-justice moment and allowed it to devolve into what might be the worst of all offenses -- bad TV.

Saddam is not alone, though. We're awash in a world of cartoon despots, including Osama himself, President Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong-Il. And then there's Slobo, the first head of state ever to be tried for war crimes. He made his first appearance before the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal back on July 3rd, 2001, and was able to gum up the works to the point where he died before his guilt or innocence were determined. No amount of Ritalin can keep us focused on even a mass-murderer for that long.

The gift that fallen totalitarianistas have for manipulating the system (the same gift that elevated them initially) makes hard to take our evil-doers seriously any more. Of course, we've always satirized our enemies, from the Kaiser to Hitler to Stalin in the post-War era. The difference is that ridicule was a weapon, not a world-view. With little difference between what is going on in Saddam's courtroom and the media screamfests on cable TV, with bin Laden using Al Jazeera like his personal YouTube, and with his "apparent former sex slave" writing for "Days of Our Lives" we have blurred Perry Mason with Survivor.

The most tragic part of this fiasco is the message it's sending to the youth of Iraq. The role of the judiciary is a critical early imprint; without the sanctity of the courtroom it's impossible to raise a generation that respects the structures of society and believes that justice will be done. Eliminating the IEDs -- Improvised Explosive Devices -- on the roadside can't happen overnight. But the explosive events in the courtroom were entirely predictable and preventable.