Videos of Saddam Hussein after his capture in December showed a docile, disheveled, wild-haired man looking like one of Los Angeles' homeless. His appearance Thursday in a Baghdad court was closer to the image he presented in his days of despotic rule, invasions of Iran and Kuwait, gassing of Kurds and killing of Shiite Muslims: an in-charge dictator.
"I am Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq," he insisted, and demanded that the judge introduce himself. He argued confidently that he could not be prosecuted for any actions during his presidency because the invasion that toppled him was illegal.
Hussein's arrogance and combativeness, if continued throughout a trial, could enhance his popularity among Iraqi dissidents and perhaps encourage more resistance to the country's new government.
Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has risen in the esteem of his backers with tirades during his trial by international jurists on charges of similar crimes against humanity. Milosevic has been on trial for more than two years; no end is in sight. Iraqis must ensure that Hussein's trial is speedier.
Hussein's opponents insisted that he be tried in Iraq, despite its continuing instability. Holding the trial in Baghdad at least has the advantage of making it easier for Hussein's victims to testify. The bigger question is fairness. The presence of respected international jurists on the panel trying Hussein would cut the risk of having the proceedings portrayed as a kangaroo court bent on revenge. German and Japanese leaders were tried in their own countries after World War II. Because judges from the conquering nations presided, critics were prompted to apply the label of "victors' justice."
Political philosopher Hannah Arendt witnessed the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961, after Israelis kidnapped the onetime Nazi leader from Argentina. She remarked on the "banality of evil," as Eichmann portrayed himself as a bureaucrat following orders to send Jews from across Europe to the gas chambers. Hussein is also believed to have ordered the deaths of thousands without a twinge of conscience. Yet he doesn't have even the lame excuse that he was only following orders; he was in charge.
Trials, with the possibility of acquittals -- however remote -- are risky. Iraqis building a justice system mostly from scratch saw Thursday that they're in for a fight with Hussein. They have a lot to prove and plenty to be frightened about.