Trials of war criminals were once serious business. Recall the photographs of Herman Goering and Rudolf Hess sitting glumly in the dock at Nuremberg. Some Nazi leaders were even hanged after relatively short but fair trials.
Nowadays, legal proceedings against the world's most wicked leaders have become farce. The trial of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’athist cronies offers an ongoing series of embarrassments. The defendants try one antic after another, and Hussein shows every form of contempt possible except “mooning” the judge. It is hard to expect an outcome that will appear legitimate in the eyes of Iraqis or the world.
Meanwhile, Slobodan Milosevic’s trial morphed into a funeral after four boring years of testimony and a sunken cost of more than $200 million. In Cambodia, the United Nations and the government have dickered for almost a decade about how to bring surviving Khmer Rouge figures to trial.
The mass killers who took power in the twentieth century were doomed to being killed in popular revolts or to being tried for their crimes – that is, if they did not die in power. Who can be proud that Romania’s last Communist boss, Nicolai Ceaucescu, and his wife were shot without even the semblance of a fair trial? The formal trappings of a real court always seem better than instant justice, even if the end result is also death.