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By now everyone in the civilized world knows about the capture of Saddam Hussein, alive and cowering in a hole in the ground. And while we can only speculate on what this will mean for the future of the insurgency in Iraq, we do know that what lies ahead is one of history’s most important trials. The prospect of trying Hussein for mass torture and murder naturally brings to mind Nuremberg. But there are some differences. Nuremberg was an international assembly of victors in war, trying the perpetrators of genocide waged against the citizens of many nations. But if the Iraqis conduct this trial-as President Bush rightly has urged, rather than have an international tribunal-it will mark a watershed event not only for Iraq, but for the entire Middle East. Why is it important for Iraq to try Hussein (as well as the other Ba’ath villains in the infamous deck of cards), rather than make this an international event? Justice is more than a spectator sport. To internalize the idea of a just society, a nation must do justice, it must live justice. To instill justice in a nation, its people must have faith in their own judicial system, trust it to resolve disputes fairly, to mete out punishment in ways that are evenhanded and temperate, and to act with mercy and without favoritism. Pretty laws on the books without active democratic institutions mean nothing (witness the People’s Republic of China). A society learns this by seeing fairness and due process extended consistently over and over again in both the smallest and the largest cases. A nation internalizes justice by seeing friends, colleagues and respected members of the community devoting their lives to the fair administration of justice-as law enforcement officers, courtroom clerks, prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges and law professors, who wake up every day and go to work and push the slow machinery of justice forward. A nation learns the meaning of justice by seeing its family members, neighbors and, indeed, its tormentors, come before the bar and receive due process. The cumulative effect of this takes decades of trial after trial until every schoolchild knows instinctively his rights and whether justice is being done. Iraq’s memory of justice may be faint after three decades of Ba’athist brutality, but it is there, because it is imbedded in the human heart. Anyone who doubts that need only rewatch the news conference held last week by members of the governing council in Iraq-at least one of whom had been a victim of Hussein’s torture chambers-as they promised a fair and a public trial. No fair person could doubt their sincerity, integrity and enormous self-control. Iraq can handle it Certainly, it may take time for Iraq to establish a system of justice that is consistent and readily available to all of its citizens, that adheres faithfully to a model of the dispassionate rule of law at all times. Hell, we’re still working on that in the United States. But the trial of Hussein is an excellent place for the Iraqis to start. It will convince every Iraqi that if a countryman as evil as Hussein can get due process, then that is certainly the least that each and every one of them is entitled to under the law. The trial should serve a purpose similar to Nuremberg: to create a public record of Hussein’s atrocities laid out in detailed evidence so that the world will know and will remember. Along the way, there may be many painful truths that will unfold about the complicity of other nations and of many within Iraq who carried out Hussein’s brutal orders over the course of three decades. For the Iraqi people were betrayed not only by their neighbors, but by others thousands of miles away. A trial of Hussein in Iraq is important not only for Iraqis, but for their pan-Arab neighbors. One imagines that a televised trial of Hussein will be irresistible to everyone with a television in Syria, Jordan and Iran. Seeing the process of justice enacted in Iraq will be a spectacle that all the monarchies and all the fundamentalist clerics in the world wouldn’t be able to stuff back into the box. The Middle East would never be the same again. Truth, like freedom, is catching. Some say that the Iraqis are too prejudiced against Hussein to give him a fair trial. But that is a condescending argument and a vote of no confidence in Iraq’s future. Who better to mete out justice than a nation that has earned its freedom so painfully, and waited for it so patiently? And this trial will be conducted with the eyes of the world upon it. Of course, there will be challenges-legal, logistic, political and social-and the coalition should help Iraq investigate and marshal evidence. But Iraq should plunge into the task of justice as a democratic nation. A trial of Hussein-what a way for Iraq to gets its judicial feet wet. Carla T. Main edits the opinion pages of The National Law Journal.

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