I want justice for Saddam as much as the next guy or gal. But the debate over what to do with to do with Mr. “I-am-the-president” has shown just how little we know about history. It has, alas, become a rather bathetic discussion. A New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece is a case in point. “The twentieth century came and went without justice,” it opines. This is because, “None of the century’s great totalitarians ever had to sit at a defense table, confer with lawyers, rise with the court when the judge entered the room.” It glumly notes, “Mussolini was hanged, Hitler committed suicide.”

But that was justice. Hanging was just about right for Mussolini, and the postmortem mutilation of his body, while not commendable, is hardly shocking. The only reason to be glad that Saddam didn’t follow in Hitler’s footsteps to the end is that we have probably reaped intelligence benefits. I don’t believe in punishment without a trial in a civil society, but’let’s face it’if Saddam weren’t a monster we’d not have gone to war. We’ve somehow grown accustomed to the notion that dictators defeated in war must be put on trial. But this is a fairly new idea, and not necessarily a good one.

A trial for defeated bad guys was something entirely new when, in the aftermath of World War II, it became a reality with the Nuremberg trials. Japanese war cabinet members were also executed after a trial. Both Winston Churchill and FDR were originally opposed to trials, advocating the time-honored practice of summary justice without the benefit of trial. However, as the Reader’s Companion to Military History puts it, the “champions of law prevailed.” No. It was not the champions of law who prevailed’it was the champions of legalism. Churchill and FDR were right at the start. You can’t go to war with Saddam because he’s a monster with a Stalinist regime and then pretend that he’s innocent until proven guilty. This perverts commonsense’and the legal system.

I imagine that the try-Saddam crowd views it as a way to increase the power of those international organizations they hope will conduct this trial–and that were so craven in confronting Saddam before the war. But any trial will, by nature, be a show trial. This is an attempt to use the criminal justice system where it does not apply. What should be done about Saddam? As I suggested last week, I am leaning towards the solution of letting Saddam take a leisurely stroll, sans bodyguards, in some public square in Iraq. As long as it’s a Shia stronghold. The though of Mr. Saddam conferring with his lawyer is not a comfortable one.