The last time I saw pictures of a man in need of a haircut being so memorably displayed as a trophy of the American empire it was Che Guevara, stretched out dead on a table in a schoolhouse in La Higuera, a little village in the Bolivian mountains. In those edgier days, in late 1967, the Bolivian Army wanted him dead, the quicker the better, though the CIA wanted him alive for interrogation in Panama.

After a last chat with the CIA's man, Felix Rodriguez, George Bush Sr.'s pal, a Bolivian sergeant called Jaime Terran shot him in the throat, and Rodriguez got to keep his watch. They chopped off Guevara's hands for later, checking to make sure the ID was correct. Years later, his skeleton, sans hands, was located and flown back to Havana for proper burial.

"It is better this way," Guevara told Rodriguez at the end. "I should never have been captured alive," showing that even the bravest weaken at times. At the moment of his capture by the Bolivian army unit, a wounded Guevara had identified himself, telling the soldiers he was Che and worth more to them alive than dead.

Back in 1967, most of the world mourned when Che's capture and death seized the headlines. A million turned out in Havana to listen to Fidel Castro's farewell speech. It's been downhill all the way since then. The revolutionary cause has mostly gone to hell in a handcart, and the next time America's Most Wanted came out with his hands up, badly in need of a haircut, it was a mass murderer called Saddam Hussein, helped into power by the CIA a year after Guevara's death.

I went straight from Monday morning newsclips of the U.S. Army's film of Saddam having his teeth checked to have my own teeth cleaned by Tom, an oral hygienist in Santa Rosa, northern California. To try to deflect Tom from his stern rebukes for my own flossing failures I mentioned the footage of Saddam with his mouth open.

Though he gave no professional opinions on the state of Saddam's gums, it tuned out Tom had spent a couple of years in Basra in southern Iraq imparting the elements of oral hygiene to the locals. "I'd point out to them that their gums were bleeding, and they'd sigh and say it was Allah's will." Then, like millions round the world that morning, Tom and I (though, of necessity, I did most of the listening) reviewed the various options awaiting Saddam.

There were plenty of pieties in the opinion columns that Monday morning about the need for a manifestly independent tribunal where Saddam could be accorded every legal courtesy and the procedures would be like Caesar's wife (an old pundit stand-by), "above suspicion."

It was impossible to read this claptrap without laughing since that same morning Wesley Clark was testifying in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a body conjured into existence by the U.N. Security Council. As an object above suspicion of being anything other than the U.S.'s puppet, ICTY was looking pretty slutty that morning, since the U.S. government had successfully bullied the court into allowing Clark to testify in the absence of public or press, in what the ICTY demurely termed a "temporary closed session" with delayed transmission of the transcript, to allow the U.S. government to "review the transcript and make representations as to whether evidence given in open session [sic] should be redacted in order to protect the national interests of the U.S." Further to protect the interests of General Clark, he would not have to endure cross examination by Milosevic, a feisty cross examiner.

All the U.S. wants is for the former Iraqi president to be hauled into some kangaroo court and, after a brisk procedure in which Saddam will not doubt be denied opportunities to interrogate old pals from happier days like Donald Rumsfeld, be dropped through a trap door with a rope tied around his neck, maybe with an Iraqi, or at least a son of the Prophet pulling the lever.

These pretenses at judicial propriety are absurd. I prefer the posture of the Arab-American woman who said he should be put in a cage and drowned with spit. If it's a demonstration trial and execution we're after, let's go to the history books and check on an execution in 1571 that set the Christian world abuzz with horror for decades thereafter and helped give Islam (Turkish division) a somewhat undeserved reputation for oriental refinement in the cruelest arts of killing. (Undeserved? Check out the method, in effect a pioneering exercise in slow cooking, by which Christians finished off Joan of Arc.)

For months the Ottoman hosts of Islam had been trying to capture the city of Famagusta on the island of Cyprus. Under the brave leadership of Bragadino the garrison held on, but finally came the moment of surrender. Pledges of fair treatment of prisoners were made, and Bragadino led out his defeated forces to be greeted with courtesy by Lala Mustafa Pasha. It's unclear what happened next. It may well have been an impolitic crack by Bragadino, taken the wrong way by the sensitive Turk. At all events, the Pasha decided to make an example of Bragadino, just to remind the world who's boss -- the message the U.S. wants any trial of Saddam to demonstrate.

Three times Bragadino's decapitation was ordered, the scimitar flourished then laid aide. His ears and nose were cut off, his body mutilated. For 10 days he was forced to carry baskets of dirt in front of the pasha, and then kiss the ground. Finally he was taken to the main square of Famagusta, tied to the stocks, skinned alive, the skin then stuffed with straw, paraded around on a cow, with a red umbrella over it as a sign of contempt. When the pasha returned in triumph to the Golden Horn, the stuffed skin was tied to the bowsprit.

Now that's what I call a robust demonstration of political power. (The Christians got their revenge later that year at the Battle of Lepanto.) No nonsense about "tribunals," international law, dispassionate judges. It's actually the plain, blunt approach George Bush affects to favor. He should pick a skinner from one of the Texas abattoirs and head for Baghdad.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.