I find the pictures of Hosni Mubarak being brought to court in his cage disturbing. I am against show trials, which means I am pretty much against trying Mubarak, as I was against putting Saddam Hussein on trial.

Mubarak is (like Saddam) a bad and corrupt man and also (unlike Saddam) a former U.S. ally. But his “trial” is a perversion of justice. I’d have no problem with the rough justice of the Egyptian people shooting him.

Sir Winston Churchill wanted summary executions instead of the Nuremberg trials and I wish he had prevailed. The Nuremberg trials arrived at just verdicts but their descendents are show trials. I dislike these trials because it is the concept of justice in a court of law that they pervert.

These trials use the courts to exact pre-ordained vengeance in a way that makes the powerful side feel particularly righteous. I still prefer Sir Winston’s summary executions. (Interestingly, in a U.S. court, I think that terrorist “suspects” would possibly get off because we often regard it as a vindication for our system when the guilty walk because of technical considerations. I don’t think there is much danger of this happening for Mubarak.)

There is also an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that expresses concern for “pharaoh in his cage” because the thirst for vengeance can undo the hopes of the Egyptian revolution. It is true that the Mubaraks were corrupt and cruel:

But the timing and tenor of this proceeding suggests another dynamic at work-a mob’s thirst for vengeance. The Mubaraks were served up to prosecutors by the interim military rulers in response to weeks of protest. The demonstrators, not irrationally, fear that the old regime wants to find a way to hang on. But a trial will do far less to guard against this risk than the rule of law and a proper democratic transition.

The editorial isn’t against a trial but only a trumped up trial like this one threatens to be:

The Mubaraks deserve what comes to them in an open and fair court. This prosecution is hasty, deeply political and distracting. If only everything else in Egypt moved so fast.

There’s no date for an election, much less an electoral law, while the economy continues a post-revolutionary slide. Egypt’s unreformed courts are hardly models of independence, efficiency or due process.

I’ve said I’d find an execution less disturbing than a show trial. But it doesn’t have to be either:

The attitude toward the past offers a clue about the future of any revolution. History teaches to beware of the Jacobins and Bolsheviks. Uprisings propelled by retribution, such as Iran’s bloody Islamic revolution in 1979, tend not to know how to shut themselves down. Certainly it’s hard to strike a balance between justice and revenge, between turning the other cheek and not letting the ancien regime off scot-free. But countries that err on the side of reconciliation have tended to come out better.

Nelson Mandela preached it in South Africa, a democratic miracle on that continent. Ferdinand Marcos fled to Hawaii in 1986, but his cronies were largely left alone by the new government of Corazon Aquino, and the Philippines enjoyed a smooth transition. The Romanians executed the ruling Ceausescu couple after a secret show trial and took another decade to get their political act cleaned up. By contrast, the Poles drew a “black line” under their communist past and were able to focus on building a Central European regional democratic power.

A common denominator to successful democracy stories is an orderly and consensus-driven transition. In this sense, the Mubarak case is symptomatic of the past six months in Egypt. An opaque military council has refused to hash out the rules and timetable to hand over power with the opposition through a formal process. Instead it throws the street a bone once in a while. Today that’s the despised Mubaraks. Tomorrow?