I was 11 when Saddam came to town; I still remember it well. It was a sunny Saturday in the early fall. We lived in a subdivision on the outskirts of town, and every Saturday afternoon, I'd catch the bus to Riverglen HyperMall, where my friends were.
That day, as the bus wound its way through streets of new houses and empty lots, dust on the window glowing yellow in the sunlight, it seemed like just another Saturday. Looking back on it though, the signs were there: unusually heavy traffic (the last 5 minutes of the bus trip took 15 minutes), the flags and banners, and the helicopters and jets swooping overhead.
I got off the bus and made my way through the crowds to the concourse outside eXtremeZone. Tommy and Walker were already there.
I had, of course, known about Saddam; the ad screens at the bus stop, as part of their "community message" slot announced him being shown at Riverglen, and the TV news Dad watched charted the tour across a shiny 3D map of the United States, along with scenes from previous stops (crowds holding hands and singing God Bless America; a disturbance in Mississippi when someone fired a shotgun at his enclosure; a funny scene showing a dog pissing on his cage). But I didn't pay much attention, and didn't notice that it was today.
We made our way through the mall, following the red-white-and-blue arrows. As we neared the central space (you know, the one where shows are held during the summer), the crowd got thicker. Entire families were there, dressed in red, white and blue. Men in black suits watched the crowd from the edges, muttering into hidden microphones.
"Who's Saddam?" Walker asked. He was the youngest, a year and a bit younger than me. "He's the boss of all terrorists," Tommy explained in the self-assured tones of someone who knows things, "he blew up the World Trade Center."
The signs got larger and brighter; shops along the route had decorated for the occasion, and displayed in their windows flags, ribbons, and patriotic posters. One poster, of a soaring eagle in pastels, was particularly popular. Stands had appeared in the middle of the passage, decked out in ribbons, selling paper flags, cardboard signs, T-shirts, balloons, bumper stickers, cloth Uncle Sam hats (made in China, as I later found out), inflatable baseball bats and giant styrofoam hands, all imprinted with stars, stripes, eagles and various slogans: United We Stand, God Bless America, We're #1, Eat That, Saddam. A woman in the crowd sold eagle badges, proceeds going to a charity; a man in an Uncle Sam costume walked around on stilts and handed out sweets printed with Bible verses. Elsewhere, people handed out leaflets about gun ownership, the Ten Commandments and one claiming that the Queen of England was responsible for world terrorism and oil prices.
We approached the center of the mall, the open space under the big dome. The crowd was dense; people thronged through the space, making their way to the center of the room, hanging around a bit and then moving off. It reminded me of the tropical fish in my friend Steve's lounge room. All around was a low murmur, tones of solemn explanation, condemnation and sometimes outright anger.
We made our way through the crowd, driven by curiosity. As we got closer, we began to see what was in the center. Surrounded by red velvet ropes, there stood a glass box. In it was an aged, dark-skinned man with a black mustache. He wore orange overalls (of the sort you see prison inmates in) and his arms and legs were shackled with heavy chains attached to the floor of the box. He stared at the ground, not acknowledging the crowd in any way. The front of the box was streaked with spit; a spiderweb pattern of cracks in one corner showed where someone took a shot at him. Beside it, two men in black uniforms stood, scanning the crowd, automatic rifles by their side.
The crowd milled around the bulletproof glass cage, in various states of curiosity. Some came by to get a close look at the fallen supervillain who once menaced everything they held dear; the fiend behind every anti-US plot from terrorism to the Christmas shortages of high-tech toys (which his henchmen, it was said, bought up to make into weapons), now before them in a cage. Some cursed at the prisoner, waved flags in front of him, spat at and pounded on the glass. The guards stood by, not interfering..
A woman with two children went up to the glass, pointing the prisoner out to them. The children taunted him, the boy (a few years younger than us) joyously hitting the glass with an inflatable red-white-and-blue baseball bat. After half a minute, they went away, towards the McDonalds.
Two teenaged boys in baggy shorts and baseball caps stood in front of the cage, pounding on the glass. "Suck this, Saddam!" they yelled, jabbing their middle fingers up vigorously, as close to his face as they could. Next was a paunchy man with a graying mullet and a handlebar mustache: "Hey Saddam! Fuck you, asshole!" A group of teenaged girls in midriff-baring tops gave him the finger and a string of obscenities. A short-haired man in a T-shirt reading "WE ARE McWORLD. DON'T FUCK WITH US." punched the glass and said something aggressive.
We gradually moved up to the front of the cage, and looked at its occupant. I was reminded of a mangy lion I saw in a roadside zoo once, when we went to Florida. The lion had just sat there, a pathetic shell, its glassy eyes staring dully into space, and so did the former Iraqi dictator before me now.
I stared through the thick glass at the face of evil, as one would at a museum piece. Here was the monster who killed countless thousands, whose missiles and chemical weapons terrorised entire nations, shackled behind glass at the Riverglen HyperMall. He sat there impassively, like an insect in a glass case, refusing to acknowledge his captors.
"Hey Saddam," Tommy shouted at him and pounded on the glass, "we whupped your sorry ass, didn't we? Yeah, we sure did. Asshole!"
"Asshole!" Walker joined in.
"Scumfuck!" I volunteered.
We kept making up names, trying to outdo each other; in the end, we ran out of ideas and ended up just pounding on the glass and sticking fists and fingers up at the occupant. Then we went for ice cream.
A week later, the news reported that two Saudi nationals and an anarchist were arrested and charged with terrorism over an attempt to break him out. Three people had been injured; one of the Saudi terrorists was in a critical condition.
When the tour was over, Saddam was put on trial (in a closed military court, though excerpts were aired on the news, showing him looking shifty and remorseless, interleaved with footage of wreckage and the grieving relatives of victims). He was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to just over 3 million life terms. As he was taken to prison (the same one where the Unabomber was kept), the news showed rowdy protests outside the courthouse against his being spared the death penalty.
A few years later, well after the election (which the president won by a record landslide), rumours began to emerge that the whole thing had been staged; that the man in the glass cage was an impostor. Arab TV in the middle east played videotapes purporting to be of Saddam, in exile, denouncing the west and calling for holy war; FOX News immediately reported the tape as a fake, and that Saddam was safely in a maximum security cell in Colorado.
Who knows whether the rumours are true; the authorities and media say no, various conspiracy theorists and fringe sources say yes. (A decade later, in college, I met an Indonesian exchange student, a Chomskyist and the son of Christian Separatists from Idaho, each of whom believed that Saddam's capture was faked, and had their own reasons for doing so.) But I prefer to think that the prisoner I saw at the Riverglen HyperMall was the Iraqi dictator. Things seem much neater that way.