Saddam Hussein has just been condemned in an Iraqi court to be executed for the crimes he has against his own people. Hussein has been characterized, among other things, as a
- genocidal maniac.
Although we have ample justification for applying these labels, each of them can also become a self-deceptive and harmful dead end in our search for a genuine understanding of Hussein, of ourselves, and of human behavior as a whole. Allow me to illustrate what I mean with a discussion of just one of these terms: monster.
Imagine that you and I have a conversation where your behavior toward me is undeniably critical and angry. Hours later, when I’m reviewing in my mind what happened between us, I decide that you were unkind, mean-spirited, and singularly abominable. I conclude, in fact, that you were a jerk, even a monster.
Is my characterization of you justifiable? In some ways, perhaps. My reasoning—almost always carried out unconsciously—might go as follows:
- In order to be happy what we all need most is Real Love. Specifically, what I needed from you in our conversation was Real Love.
- When we’re angry at other people, we’re loudly communicating that our needs aren’t being met. Anger is an obvious indication that we’re focusing on ourselves, and in that moment we couldn’t possibly have a primary interest in the happiness of others. In short, as explained here, the message we convey with anger is I don’t love you. Specifically, when you were angry at me in our conversation, you were not loving me unconditionally, and I felt that.
- Because our need for Real Love is so great, telling people we don’t love them is the most hurtful thing we could do. It’s wounding. Specifically, you wounded me with your anger.
- The essential characteristic of monsters is that they hurt other people.
- Because you injured me—because you chose to hurt me instead of loving me—you qualify as a monster.
Labeling you a monster has some significant advantages:
- Clarity. When we don’t understand what’s really happening in a relationship, we feel lost and confused. We hate those feelings. And if we’re also in pain, confusion keeps us from seeing a way out of our pain, and that’s a terrible, hopeless sensation. If we can label another person the monster in a relationship, however, much of the confusion is then gone. Now at least we know why we’re in pain—or we think we do. Specifically, when I label you a monster, I don’t wonder anymore why our conversation was painful. Now I know that it’s your fault, and from that certainty I can derive a perverse sense of comfort.
- Morality. Once I’ve labeled you a monster, I can feel morally superior to you.
- Power. After I label you the monster, I can often enlist the aid of others who will then help me in my defense against you. People tend to rally around the banner of those who are unjustly persecuted. We love to rally together against monsters.
Although there are many advantages to labeling people monsters, the disadvantages are enormous. If I condemn you as a monster in the above conversation, for example, I
- miss out on a valuable opportunity to learn anything at all from the experience. Once I label you as the problem, I remove all motivation to examine my own behavior, and now I’m really stuck. If my own behavior doesn’t change, I will keep having the same miserable interactions with anyone who behaves like you did. Sure, I can keep blaming you and everyone else for my unhappiness, but I’ll still be unhappy, and that is a terrible price to pay.
- miss out on the opportunity to learn how to love you and thereby change both our lives.
- miss out on a golden opportunities to feel loved unconditionally that can be created only as I tell the truth about myself, not as I tell the truth about you or anyone else.
In this article we’ll be attempting to genuinely understand Hussein, rather than simply labeling and condemning him. Specifically, we’ll be examining how profoundly his life—and the lives of millions of others—was affected by his belief that he was a victim, which is one of the Getting and Protecting Behaviors, as explained in the book Real Love. Most important, by far, although this section on Hussein is fascinating both from a historical and psychological perspective, the true benefit to us—and a potentially enormous one at that—is the opportunity to understand ourselves.
In order to be happy, what we all need most is to feel loved, but not any kind of love will do. We must feel loved unconditionally. We must receive Real Love. In the absence of sufficient Real Love, our pain is unbearable, and we respond by using Getting and Protecting Behaviors to get enough Imitation Love in our lives. Regrettably, Imitation Love and Getting and Protecting Behaviors are guaranteed to bring us only misery.
As we study the lives of men who achieved singular notoriety—such as Hitler, Stalin, Saloth Sar (better known as Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge), Hussein—there is a natural tendency on our part to react by pursing our lips, sighing, shaking our heads, and responding with a self-righteous “Tsk, tsk.” While this reaction is understandable, if we give in to it we rob ourselves of an invaluable, indispensable opportunity to learn about ourselves, since we are all united by the same humanity, the same need for Real Love, the same emptiness and fear, the same addictions to Imitation Love, and the same use of Getting and Protecting Behaviors. Certainly these men used Imitation Love and Getting and Protecting Behaviors in more dramatic and more visible ways than most of us do, and their addictions affected the lives of more people than most of us ever will, but we are not so terribly different from them as we would like to suppose. They still have much to teach us about ourselves.
These men all began as we did, as small children who were wounded by the absence of that which they needed most. Unlike you and me, they rose to positions where their behaviors affected millions rather than a few. When I as a parent speak unkindly to a child, in that moment I inflict the same kind of wound that Hussein did upon millions. In a moment of anger I am telling that child that I don’t love him, and the damage done by that unkindness is not to be dismissed just because it pales in quantity with the actions of a man who was simply capable—by virtue of position and abilities and historical fate—of affecting a greater number of people.
As we read about Saddam Hussein in the light of our understanding of Real Love and victimhood, we create an opportunity to learn about our own victimhood:
- We can more easily see how we too act like victims and in our own ways cause our own kinds of destruction to spouses, lovers, children, friends, co-workers, and so on.
- We can better understand the vast numbers of other people around us who feel and act like victims.
- We can take giant strides toward replacing the fear and anger and pain in our lives with peace, love, and happiness. This reward alone should be enough to entice us to take steps in this new direction of understanding.
As I discuss the effects that victimhood has had on Saddam Hussein, keep in mind that
- I am not attempting to excuse anyone’s behavior. At no point—and in no way—am I saying, for example, “Poor Saddam, he was a victim, so he just couldn’t help himself. It wasn’t really his fault that he killed millions of people.”
- I am not proposing that there were no other factors that contributed to the behaviors of these people. In addition to acting like a victim, for example, Hussein and other infamous characters may also have been influenced by a psycho-affective disorder or paranoid personality. I am talking about the role of victimhood because historical records provide more certainty about this factor and because there is more we can do about this problem in our own lives. Let’s say, for example, that I could state with authority—which I cannot—that 37% of Hussein’s behavior was dictated by a well-defined psychiatric disorder, one which today could be marginally controlled with medication. And suppose we could say that 50% of his behavior originated from his belief that he was a victim. There is little reason to talk about the disorder for which there is only some hope of treatment at best, when we can talk about victimhood instead, which can be profoundly affected with understanding and with Real Love.
Most of the following data was gathered from Saddam Hussein, a Biography, by Shiva Balaghi, Greenwood Press, 2006.
Saddam Hussein’s father died before he was born, and his mother went to her brother’s home for the delivery of her child. He always regarded himself as a victim of his father’s loss, and in later life, as dictator of Iraq, he favored poets who referred to similarities between himself and the Prophet Muhammad, whose father had also died before he was born.
Shortly after Saddam was born, his mother re-married, and her new husband beat Saddam and called him a “son of a dog” and “son of a whore.” The stepfather also didn’t talk to Saddam much and certainly didn’t show him any affection. At a young age, therefore, Hussein had already been victimized severely, and he soon reacted to his pain by acting like a victim.
Saddam was raised in Tikrit, a very poor and harsh place, and at a young age he became what the Arabs called a “son of the alleys” or what we might call a hoodlum or young gangster. An old friend remembered that at an early age Saddam carried with him an iron bar to protect himself from stray dogs or other people, and he grew up believing that the only thing he could trust was that iron bar. This is how a victim sees the world, as something he must protect himself from constantly. When his friends gathered and talked about growing up to become doctors and poets, Saddam talked about having a jeep, a gun, and binoculars.
At age ten Saddam moved to his uncle’s house, where he received his education. His uncle had been intimately involved with the 1941 Iraqi rebellion against the British occupation of the country, and for his efforts he had spent five years in prison. He too felt thoroughly victimized, and he powerfully conveyed that attitude to his nephew. He once wrote a pamphlet, Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews, and Flies. Saddam wrote of him, “He always inspired us with a great nationalistic feeling.” To Saddam nationalism meant a reaction to centuries of victimization by outsiders.
Saddam felt victimized personally, but he also lived in a country and in a household and in a culture where victimhood was preached daily as a form of patriotism. The Ottoman Turks had occupied Iraq for hundreds of years, and then in 1917 they were replaced by the British, who promised not to occupy the country. But the Brits stayed, and they installed as king a man who wasn’t even Iraqi, which really irritated his subjects. The Iraqis made many subsequent attempts to throw the British and their puppet leaders out, and on each occasion when they failed—with the increased political oppression that followed—it was regarded as another victimization of the country.
Hussein learned to read at a late age, and in school he intensely resented the authority of teachers. Once he even slipped a snake into the robe of a teacher while he was pretending to embrace the man. When Saddam was fourteen, one teacher gave him a beating, and one witness testified that later that night Saddam went to the teacher’s house and shot the first person to open the door, who happened to be the teacher’s brother. The man lived.
Saddam’s earliest political activities consisted of organizing street gangs in support of the Baath party. At age twenty-one he served six months in prison for murdering a local communist leader, and with every passing year his sense of personal and national injustice was building.
A year later Saddam was part of the assassination team that tried to kill the president of Iraq, and his escape from the country was both dramatic and well-used as propaganda material for many years afterward. In his absence he was sentenced to death, but he simply remained in Syria as an exile for four years. When Saddam returned to Iraq, he was soon involved in another plot to assassinate a new Iraqi president, and this time he was caught and put in prison.
In the space of ten years, four government coups took place in Iraq, so Saddam was part of a tumultuous political landscape where justification of extreme behavior came easily. In his early speeches, he talked about fighting imperialism and making his country a safe place for the Arab struggle. He saw the world in terms of himself and them, everyone that he must defend himself against.
“When I was a child,” Saddam Hussein once told a reporter, “a man walked through my village without carrying a weapon. An old man came up to him and said, ‘Why are you asking for trouble?’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ The old man replied, ‘By walking without a weapon, you are asking for people to attack you. Carry a weapon so that blood will not be spilled!’”
When Iraq’s president retired, Saddam succeeded him and summoned four hundred Baath party members to a televised meeting. There he announced that he had discovered a plot to overthrow the party, and he began to name traitors who were hauled away one by one, until one man stood to sing the praises of Saddam, at which point everyone joined in. Five hundred officials were later executed, not just at Hussein’s orders but in many cases at his personal hand. After the executions were complete, Saddam stood on the balcony of Presidential Palace in Baghdad and saluted a crowd of 50,000 who shouted, “Death to the Traitors!” All of this was right out of the Victim’s Handbook: a plot (against him), motivating the leaders to sing his praises, his personally exacting revenge for offenses against him, the crowd of 50,000 (to worship him), the chant “Death to the Traitors” (who betrayed him).
At one point Hussein became personally offended—as victims do—at the language of Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, and in retaliation he launched the longest war of the twentieth century, which resulted in 1.5 million casualties.
After invading Kuwait, he said, “Arabs, Moslems, believers in God, this is your day to rise and spread quickly in order to defend Mecca, which is captive to the spears of the Americans and the Zionists . . . who want harm for your families.” Victims see harm everywhere, and they commit their atrocities in the name of defending themselves and others. He then changed the Iraqi flag, adding the words God is great written in his own hand in the middle of the banner. Victims have no limits to their self-centeredness. He referred to the battle with Western forces as “the great duel, the mother of all battles, between the victorious right and the evil that will certainly be defeated.”
As with all victims, Hussein was not concerned with the cost of his behavior to others. In 1989, Iraq’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was $2,840. By 1997—under his leadership—it had dropped to $200. His decisions to involve his country in wars to salve his sense of victimhood had nearly destroyed his entire country. But he didn’t let these conflicts affect his personal wealth. He was worth billions and lived in fifty palaces, just one of which was big as all of the District of Columbia.
Now Saddam has come to an ignominious end. He has been sentenced to death by an Iraqi court. Let us learn from his life. Let us learn that when we act like victims and lash out at others who have “hurt” us, we only cause more hurt—to others and to ourselves. The world doesn’t need more pain. It needs more love.
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