The Key To Healing Our Psyches? Justice.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – What do Saddam Hussein, Andrew Fastow, Dennis Kozlowski, Nicolae Ceausescu, and Michael Milken have in common? At least a few things: All were extremely fond of money, all pushed the boundaries that were supposed to contain them (two of them far more grotesquely than the others, obviously), and all ended up in government custody. Most significant, all faced or are facing trials concerning much more than just laws. The outcomes of those proceedings were--or will be--extraordinarily important for each man's nation.
All these cases are of the same fundamental type, despite huge differences among them: Gassing babies isn't the same as misstating financial results; Milken and Fastow never went to trial, making plea deals instead, while Ceausescu's trial lasted a morning and Saddam's will probably take months. Yet for their many dissimilarities, these cases all belong to a small class that is not so much about rendering verdicts on the charges stated as about meeting a country's deep psychological needs. Keeping that in mind is vital as we watch what happens next to Saddam as well as to Kozlowski, Bernie Ebbers, Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and others in the months ahead.
The clearest illustration of the principle, for better and for worse, was Ceausescu. A Saddam-class monster, he ruled Romania with unbelievable sadism for 24 years. Then, with the Iron Curtain collapsing all around them, his countrymen rose up and seized control. On Christmas Day, 1989, they tried Ceausescu and his wife, found them guilty, took them outside, and shot them. With an instinctive understanding of what had to happen next, they hauled out a videocamera and put close-ups of the dead dictator's face on national TV, in the process quite possibly setting a world speed record for national catharsis.
Just five months later we carried out a conceptually similar though appropriately less brutal exercise here in the U.S. Michael Milken didn't deserve to be shot, but most people thought he deserved to be punished and humiliated. Never mind that his alleged crimes were technical rule violations that had never previously been the basis of criminal prosecution. Most Americans wanted to see this ultimate master of the universe brought low, and they got their wish, seeing him shoved along by marshals, without his toupee. After that, we could move on from the 1980s.
Today's situation is surprisingly similar. Our current despot in chains will probably receive an excruciatingly correct trial rather than Ceausescu's taunting and hurried one, but the necessary outcome is just as clear. Last year, well before Saddam's capture, I asked Sir Richard Butler, the chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq in the late 1990s, how important it was for the Iraqi people not just to see Saddam brought to justice but to see him dead. His reply was strikingly blunt: Extremely important. Regardless of one's feelings about the death penalty, the reality of Iraq's history and culture is that the nation will remain to some extent paralyzed until its people can actually see their former dictator's dead body. What exactly will he be charged with at trial? As long as the charges are simple and plausible, it hardly matters.
Like Saddam, our financial villains have yet to conclude their story lines, but again the required outcome is apparent. On Wall $treet Week With FORTUNE recently, I asked financial author Roger Lowenstein about one of them. His reply spoke for millions: "If they don't convict Kozlowski and send him to jail, I think they ought to just unlock the prisons and let everyone out. I mean, I think what he did was looting, and it's pretty clear."
For purposes of national catharsis, Kozlowski is one of the key figures who must be seen to meet justice. The others are Enron's former bosses, Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling--either will do--and Bernie Ebbers, former chief of the former WorldCom, now MCI. Andy Fastow's recent guilty plea is important mainly because it requires him to give evidence against Lay and Skilling. As former WorldCom CFO Scott Sullivan's February trial date approaches, watch for prosecutors to try for a Fastow-style plea deal that would get Sullivan singing about Ebbers.
Saddam is history, and our corporate scandals are over. But they aren't really. They're still with us. With the right trials and the right outcomes, we can finally put them behind us and move on. And with luck, it will happen this year.
GEOFFREY COLVIN, senior editor at large of FORTUNE, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Watch him on Wall $treet Week With FORTUNE, Friday evenings on PBS.