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Jewish World Review July 28, 2003 / 28 Tamuz, 5763

James Lileks

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Despot's Deserts | Idi Amin's death lingering coma reminds us of a peculiar time in 20th century history, an era when mass-murdering, cannibalistic brutes were punch lines to a "Saturday Night Live" skit.

Yes, the Amins of the world are often comic, from a distance.

The Robert Mugabes are content to cloak their evil in a simple black suit; they look presentable at international functions. But the Amins feel compelled to out-kitsch the ghost of Mussolini.

Hence the chestful of medals for battles that were never fought. The epaulets, the stars for manufactured rank. The titles that pile up platitudes like slabs of cheap, dry cake: Protector of the Land, Scion of the Army, Father of Liberty, Inspector of Pants, Master of Poultry, Scourge of Those Evil Spirits Responsible for Dry Scalp and Tooth Decay, Sovereign of the World, Emperor of the Milky Way, God's Go-To Guy. Also a Notary Public and Amway Distributor.

Translation: brute. The more titles, the worse the rule. The greater the official praise, the more loathsome the leader.

By why do we remember Amin, and not the scores of thugs who've shoved their countrymen through the meat-grinder? In terms of body counts, he was a piker. Amin tortured and killed between more than 200,000 people -- a ghastly sum, but by 20th century standards, this was the amateur hour.

No, Amin added his own special twist to the perverse history of modern misrule. We speak of leaders who have their opponents for lunch, but it's usually a metaphor. Amin was accused of actual cannibalism. We don't have photos of him tucking into a plate of minced dissident; no chef has ever stepped forward to discuss the tyrant's favorite sweetbreads recipe. But the Ugandans believed that he ate his enemies -- a rare charge to make against a head of state, so one must suspect they had their reasons.

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His alleged cannibalism struck many in America as a comical twist on the African dictator. It resurrected childhood images from movies and comic books: sober, pith-helmeted white men boiling in a big black pot while bone-nosed natives whooped and sang. That was the old Africa, the Dr. Livingstone-I-presume Africa. New Africa was the postcolonial dream of technocratic rule, socialist planning, British-educated elites calmly steering their newly freed nations to their place in the international order.

To find an actual cannibal in charge of one these countries was almost surreal. How could anyone who drove around town in a flashy sports car winking at the girls, as Amin was known to do, sit down for a meal of Braised Foe?

But consider today: In the Congo, "rebels" are eating Pygmies for their magic essence, as if they're a video-game power-up. This isn't a joke; it happens.

It's difficult to imagine the terror you might feel knowing that an army was en route, and it didn't just kill citizens, but ate them. Ate them. So why was this funny over here in the West? Why was Idi Amin a punch line instead of a byword for the nightmarish character of postcolonial dystopias?

Because it was Africa, had nothing to do with apartheid, and hence could be ignored?

Just a thought. In any case, Amin's misrule ended with a lesson to us all: If you oppress and murder your people, invade neighbors, and spend the national treasure on brutal wars, you may have to suffer decades of exile by a seaside resort. Amin went to Libya first, then Saudi Arabia, where he spent his happy last years. No doubt he saw the ads in Despots Quarterly, read about the 24-hour security, Western-grade medical facilities, sparkling beaches, cabanas for your extended relations. Why, the concierge would even help coordinate your return to power if you joined at the Diamond Plus level.

Just remember: Amin stands out only because he did a Hannibal Lecter on his enemies. The theft and murder was otherwise unnotable. In the history of humanity, the Libyas, Saudi Arabias and Ugandas of Amins are not unusual. Liberal democray is the anomaly. Amin is the norm. All the more reason to cheer his passing -- and keep a close eye on those who gave him shelter.

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JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2003, James Lileks