As is by now well known, Robert Fisk has given his name to - or rather had it taken for - a new verb. Whether the meaning of this verb extends beyond the pointing out of factual errors or omissions, and weaknesses of logic, to an effort to capture something of the moral, and indeed aesthetic, quality of a given piece of writing I don't know. But, if not, I think it should. The quality of Fisk's own writing is at times quite exceptionally vile.
In a pair of recent articles for the Independent (not accessible without subscription, but both available online elsewhere), Fisk reacts to the process now under way of bringing Saddam Hussein to trial. Reflect for a moment on the sum of human misery which Saddam has been responsible for, the appalling brutalities that were routine during the time he ruled Iraq, and the company in which he has consequently earned himself a place - the company of the most cruelly murderous tyrants of modern times. Then read Robert Fisk. This is how he reacts to the prospect of Saddam's trial (original here):
Now it is time for bread and circuses. Keep the people distracted. Show them Saddam. Remind them what it used to be like. Make them grateful. Make Saddam pay. Show his face once more across the world so that his victims will think about the past, not the present. Charge him. Before the full majesty of Iraq's new "democratic" law. And may George Bush win the next American election.If the word 'monster' has any application at all to political figures - and I would say it does - then Saddam Hussein was and is one; but Fisk ironizes the word by capitalizing it, and follows up with the companion 'Beast of Baghdad'; before giving us 'miserable old murderer', in which 'murderer' serves the useful function of rescuing the writer from the sympathy extended to Saddam by 'miserable' and 'old'. For Fisk, the bringing to justice of this genocidal thug is no more than a distraction from problems with Iraq's electricity supply and an electoral ruse on behalf of George Bush. Even if it were either or both of those things, you need - truly - the moral perception of a woodchip to allow yourself to write in such terms, as if there were no other dimension of it.
That's pretty much how it looked from Baghdad yesterday. Forget the 12-hour power cuts and the violence and the kidnappings and the insurgency. Let's go back again to the gruesome days of Baathist rule, let's revisit once more the theatre of cruelty - back to all those war crimes and crimes against humanity with which the Monster will be charged. Let's take another look at Tariq Aziz and "Chemical" Ali and the rest. Isn't this why we came to Iraq - to rescue the Iraqis from the Beast of Baghdad?
Even yesterday, the BBC was telling viewers that Saddam's appearance in court was "exactly what Iraqis have been waiting for". Alas, Iraqis have been waiting for electricity and safety and freedom from crime and elections far more than the trial of the miserable old murderer who will be paraded before us.
Now, here are some descriptive passages from the second piece by Fisk, relating to the person of our 'miserable old murderer':
Bags beneath his eyes, beard greying, finger-jabbing with anger, Saddam was still the same fox: alert, cynical, defiant, abusive, proud.A human portrait? A humanizing one even? Such as the good journalist owes his or her readers, allowing them to see that the political thug is also a person? Perhaps. But I suggest that this is a complicit portrait, seeking more sympathy for the person in question than he ought, all things considered, to receive. Of course, it's cleverly enough done that Fisk has the necessary saving words in place ('brutal old dictator'; 'heart of stone not to remember how many of his victims' etc). I stick by my point, all the same, though I don't have the skill in literary criticism, or theory, to be able to explain why 'One looked into those big, tired, moist eyes...' is, in relation to its subject, a betrayal of the very victims Fisk's heart apparently softens for.
For hours, the Iraqi judges managed to censor Saddam's evidence from the soundtrack of the videotaped proceedings - so that the world should not hear the wretched man's defence.
Scornful he was, defeated he was not.
One looked into those big, tired, moist eyes and wondered if he understood pain and grief and sin in the way we mere mortals think we do.
He goes on to privilege his readers with the following speculative passage:
[W]atching that face, a dreadful thought occurred. Could it be that this awful man - albeit given less chance to be heard than the Nazis at the first Nuremberg hearings - actually knew less than we thought?This is, of course, the well-trodden avenue of apologia. Because no document bearing a Hitler order for the genocide against the Jews of Europe has ever been found, there are those who claim he bore no responsibility for it - though the evidence that he was central to the processes by which it was unleashed is overwhelming. So, now, with Saddam. Might it, could it, just be? This is only a question, after all. You've got to be able to ask a question. Isn't that what freedom of opinion is about? Sure, it is. Precisely on those grounds it can fairly be said that each gets to choose the questions they indeed do ask. Like whether Saddam might have been ignorant of the crimes of his regime; as opposed to - let us say - whether there might be a reason for Saddam's trial other than the re-election of George Bush.
Could it be that his aparatchiks and satraps and grovelling generals, even his own sons, kept from this man the iniquities of his regime?
Might it just be possible the price of power was ignorance, the cost of guilt a mere suggestion here and there...
In the end Fisk backs off from his own speculation:
No, I think not... No, I think Saddam knew.And again, the repellent quality of this is something I find hard to pin down. Is it condescension? He, Robert Fisk, lets us know that he thinks... Saddam knew; as if we were just waiting on his professional expertise and insight for this doltish piece of would-be enlightenment. There could be no better example of the political pathology that has afflicted a wide sector of left-liberal opinion since September 11 2001 than these two articles by Robert Fisk. For a contrast with them - in moral tone and quality, in substance - I invite you to read the article by Ann Clwyd in today's Guardian. Read it all. It speaks for those democratic values traduced by Fisk and the rest of his sorry ilk.
(Both Fisk articles traced via Tim Blair.)