12 March 2006

Death Of A Gravy Train

"That's $200 million down the drain," was one of the more poignant epitaphs issued on behalf of deceased dictator and alleged mass murderer Slobodan Milosevic. I'd actually heard it was closer to $500 million, but what's a few hundred million among friends when it comes to putting on a good international show trial?

"Justice has been cheated," was the gist of most media coverage, such as this from the Observer and this from the Associated Press, but who in reality was lamenting the death of a clapped-out tyrant who at the very least was destined to spend the rest of his days in prison?

Apart from unregenerate Serbian nationalists, pretty much no one, except, that is, the small army of attorneys and bureaucrats who had made a major industry out of Milosevic's trial, and who had probably planned on it continuing to generate hefty incomes for them for years to come.

What other reason could there have been for dragging his trial out over four years, with no end in sight until Milosevic himself mercifully pulled the plug? Murderers who commit their crimes in dark alleys with few or no witnesses are routinely dispatched to prison or the death chamber after trials lasting weeks or even days. Milosevic did his dirty work on international television in front of an audience of millions and we need to hem and haw about the niceties of his guilt or innocence for nearly half a decade?

It's the sort of profligate, bloviating, and impotent spectacle one has come to expect from the United Nations, but the UN can hardly be saddled with all the blame; there's a tendency for legal matters to expand to meet not just the time and space, but, more pertinently, the legal fees available. In cases like that of Milosevic or of Saddam Hussein, those can be almost limitless.

Imagine if the government, in addition to spending millions to prosecute OJ Simpson, had also written a blank check for his Dream Team of defense attorneys. Hell, that trial might still be going today instead of petering out after a mere year. "You can't put a price on justice," apologists for the present system would argue, but there's little evidence that spending massive amounts of money on legal "expertise" produces more in the way of justice than a simple and speedy trial before one's peers. If anything, it probably produces less; for example, what exactly was or is the dispute regarding Slobodan Milosevic's or Saddam Hussein's guilt or innocence? Are they charged with slaughtering 100,000 peasants when a careful study might reveal that it was actually only 97,352? Should they be let off on the technicality that one of their underlings rather than the dictator himself gave the order to bomb and strafe the village or let loose with the nerve gas?

I'm not necessarily advocating the frontier maxim of, "We'll give him a fair trial and then take him out and hang him," nor the summary justice administered by Italian partisans to Mussolini, but couldn't there be some sort of middle ground here?

Of course you may expect that if I ever become dictator of a medium-sized country and am subsequently charged with war crimes, I'll be demanding all the justice money can buy, so perhaps I am being a little hypocritical here. But in the meantime, let me point out that rather than lamenting over the hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on trying Milosevic, we could just as well take heart over the hundreds of millions more saved by his timely death.

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