The world’s highest-profile mass killer has finally gotten what he had coming. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi rose (which is to say sunk) to a level of squalid wickedness not even mastered by Osama bin Laden, whose stately visage belied a desire to keep his hands out of the muck of murder. For Zarqawi this was not a problem. He killed among the people. The killing he orchestrated, as much as a devil can orchestrate pandemonium, brought the dilemma of the entire war in Iraq into the flesh. The mere presence of a man like Zarqawi heartened the defeatism of those whose crisis in moral confidence cannot tolerate a situation of misery and injustice touched off by American military action. As for Zarqawi’s tactical attitude of nihilism — played out in the lurid dehumanization of random beheadings and detonations — it seemed as if the terrible price to be paid for U.S. intervention in Iraq was a living nightmare itself, drawn from the same irrational evil as the statist totalitarianism of the 20th century.
But the dilemma of the war — that in order to free Iraq, the coalition created a realm of murder and despair — came about courtesy of a man whose very idea of strategy involved exploiting the weakness and good faith of the liberal project of freedom. Stretched between monsters of Islam like Zarqawi and the Muslim angels who have striven for peace, brotherhood, and order in Iraq, a whole range of varyingly aggrieved citizens found their complicity suddenly on the market. Enlistment in al Qaeda in Iraq brought a perverse stability that joblessness could not. The planting of a roadside bomb brought ready cash. Silence itself — won by threats if not by payola — was a commodity of war. And true enough the fabric of Iraqi society itself had no shortage of threads for Zarqawi to pull. The denominations of Sunni and Shi’a became through his blood-colored glasses factions of mutual destruction; the hordes of hardened criminals turned out on the streets in one of Saddam’s last treasons against his own people became a field of opportunity. The breakdown of the social categories that preserved community in Iraq began when the manacles of the Ba’ath were thrown off. But Zarqawi jumped up and down in sadistic glee upon the shards of Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule. How much harder, if you break it, to fix it — when you and a handful of stalwart allies must contend with a man whose only joy is to inspire irreversible damage.
IT DID NOT, of course, have to turn out that way; the ordeal the U.S. and Iraq have had to endure in putting the hand of justice to Zarqawi is the direct result of a crisis of legitimacy beside the one that has galvanized critics of the war. The massive world demonstrations against the American invasion on February 15, 2003, revealed a profound outrage among many peoples for the use of war as a security policy. But Saddam’s regime initiated the crisis in the legitimacy of the international order by an obscene defiance of a decade’s worth of international law; and the fix was in when France refused, under any circumstance, to support any coercive enforcement of the most recent, legitimate, and unanimous order set down by the Security Council — Resolution 1441. The French government insisted it would apply its veto well short of war. International law was not to be enforced. It could be said that what Bush warned against came true on that day — the death of international law as something the world could take seriously. But because France did none of the shooting, leaving the Americans with the global psychic burden of blood on their hands, nobody blamed Paris. No one denounced Paris. And no one asked the corrupted cretins behind that disingenuous exercise of pacifism to be held to account when Zarqawi, who had been there all along, made good on his life’s calling and started organizing crimes against humanity on a proud and ongoing whim.
In that way did Zarqawi, more than any other Islamist, put himself so opportunistically at the peak of the pyramid of illegitimacy that defined the crisis in Iraq. What fun to tease an occupying power hoping to play by the rules of war by incessantly egging on the obliteration of all rules of war! What fun it must have been to drag anti-Americans, Iraqi and Western, down to the bottom of the moral slag heap by setting the tone for resistance as unmitigated barbarism. Zarqawi was the world-historical opposite of revered rebel Robert E. Lee, who refused to take his tattered army into the Appalachian hills and begin guerilla operations against the Union. For Zarqawi, “Mission Accomplished” meant the battle had just begun. Another crisis of legitimacy for which he can be held responsible, and perhaps the worst, was this profane mockery of the laws of armed conflict. Citizens were to be made targets — now, even to the exclusion of actual soldiers. Combatants were to be relieved of the quaint, millennia-old obligation of wearing uniforms. And killing was to be conducted primarily by suicide operations and by the robotic proxy of the IED — a clever new acronym for what was once the bane of people for peace everywhere: land mines. By any standard — particularly that of those most anguished by the American responsibility for civilian casualties in Iraq — Zarqawi was an unforgivable instigator of the failure of others and the most culpable figure in a worldwide movement to annihilate human dignity.
The great nightmare realization of humanity in violence, which Zarqawi whored in such soul-sickening fashion, was captured in novels ranging from All Quiet on the Western Front to American Psycho. It was Joseph Heller who distilled it down to a single phrase in Catch-22, at the moment when at last Snowden confides in Yossarian the terrible secret of his disembowelment: “The spirit is gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.”
WAR IS A TRAUMA in any age. Zarqawi made of that trauma his true religion, and of its harrowing a remorseless science. He did so at a time when a new legitimacy of order — in Iraq, in Islam, in the Middle East, in foreign relations, and in international law — is desperately needed and not yet established. He worked actively to destroy all legitimacies of order, by deploying weapons of de-civilization not used so frankly for thousands of years. He exacerbated the standing dilemma of an America deserted by the United Nations, but left to enforce the integrity of an international law which too few truly wanted enforced. And he brought unbearable dilemmas to Iraq’s unfortunates, hopeless souls not knowing whether it was worse to spare themselves or survive on complicity in the deaths of Americans and their own unknowing countrymen. For all these reasons, which shall never cease to be true, all of us — historians, Americans, Iraqis, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and atheists — can share a moment of solemn resolve, joined in the certitude that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, if he has not received it already, shall face his final judgment.
James G. Poulos is a writer and attorney living in Washington, D.C. His commentaries are found at Postmodern Conservative.