Saddam Hussein and the Cardinals

by Alice Miller

Saddam Hussein and the Cardinals
Thursday January 01, 2004

(Pity for the Cruel Father)

The response to the capture of Saddam Hussein was one of great and almost universal relief. Yet only a short time later, there was a sudden increase all over the world of voices expressing compassion for the unscrupulous tyrant who had been the object of fear and loathing while he was still at large. The fact that he no longer represented a danger was apparently sufficient to put an end to the hatred he had formerly aroused. The hatred we feel for someone is obviously at its greatest when we feel threatened by them, dependent on their whims. Once they have no more power to do us ill, our hatred disappears. And it is of course only natural for us to feel better when we can rid ourselves of this oppressive state of mind.

But in my view we cannot simply allow ourselves to base our judgment of tyrants on ordinary compassion for the individual, if that means losing sight of the things they have done. In the case of Hussein, who is still alive, it is especially important to recall the ease with which this man had his victims executed, more or less as the mood took him. There is conclusive evidence that the character of a tyrant will not change as long as he lives, that he will abuse his power in a destructive way as long as he either encounters no resistance at all or is able to nip that resistance in the bud. The point is that his genuine aim, the unconscious aim concealed behind all his conscious activities, remains the same: to use his power to blot out the humiliations inflicted on him in childhood and denied by him ever since. But this aim can never be achieved. The past cannot be expunged, nor can one come to terms with it as long as one denies the suffering it involved. Accordingly, a dictator’s efforts to achieve that aim are doomed to failure in compulsive repetition. An endless succession of victims are forced to pay the price.

With his own behavior, Hitler demonstrated to the world the treatment he suffered at his father’s hands when he was a child: destructive, pitiless, ostentatious, merciless, boastful, perverted, self-enamored, short-sighted and stupid. In his unconscious imitation he was faithful to his father’s example. For the same reason, other dictators like Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, Ceausescu, Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein behaved in a very similar way. Saddam’s biography is a prime example of extreme humiliation in childhood avenged on thousands and thousands of victims at a later date. The refusal to learn from these facts may be grotesque, but the reasons for that refusal are not difficult to identify.

The fact is that an unscrupulous tyrant mobilizes the suppressed fears and anxieties of those who were beaten as children but have never been able to accuse their own fathers of doing so, thus keeping faith with them despite the torments suffered at their hands. Every tyrant symbolizes such a father, the figure that the abused children remain attached to with every fiber of their being, blindly hoping that one day they will be able to transform him into a loving parent.

This hope may have been what prompted the representatives of the Catholic church to demonstrate their compassion for Hussein. Two years ago, I myself turned to them for support when I presented the Vatican with material on the delayed effects of spanking, asking the authorities there to do what they could to enlighten young parents on this subject. Not one of the cardinals I approached with this request showed the slightest interest in the universally ignored but crucially important issue of physically abused children. Nor did I come across the slightest indication of Christian charity or compassion in connection with this issue. Today, however, those same representatives show that they are indeed capable of compassion. But, significantly, this compassion is lavished not on maltreated children or on Saddam’s victims but on Saddam himself, on the unscrupulous father-figure that the feared despot symbolizes.

As a rule, beaten, tormented, and humiliated children who have never received support from a helping witness later develop a high degree of tolerance for the cruelties inflicted by parent figures and a striking indifference to the sufferings borne by children exposed to cruel treatment. The last thing they wish to be told is that they themselves once belonged to the same group. Indifference is a way of preserving them from opening their eyes to reality.

In this way they become advocates of evil, however convinced they may be of their humane intentions. How, after all, could they discover their own truth? From an early age they were forced to suppress and ignore their true feelings. They were forced to put their trust not in those feelings but solely in the regulations imposed on them by their parents, their teachers, and the church authorities. Now the adult tasks facing them leave them no time to perceive their own feelings, unless those feelings happen to fit in precisely with the patriarchal value system in which they live and which prescribes compassion for the father, however destructive and dangerous he may be. The more comprehensive a tyrant’s catalogue of crimes is, the more he can count on tolerance as long as his admirers are hermetically closed off from access to the sufferings of their own childhood.