Saddam Hussein's 40-year record is a compendium of bestiality, so it's hard to blame the vengeance-seekers who taunted the condemned ex-president as the noose was looped around his neck early Saturday.
The blame belongs with those who were responsible for planning and carrying out the execution. It was their urgent task to ensure that this most significant action of the new Iraqi justice system showed it to be serious, deliberative and dispassionate.
Instead, it resembled a lynch mob, partly because of the derision heaped on the man about to die and partly because of the sneak video taken of the event and distributed around the Internet. It wasn't merely regrettable, it was disastrous.
That is why it is now important for the Iraqi government to pursue the investigation it has promised: to find out what happened, hold individuals responsible and ensure that the inevitable future executions -- or any trials and punishments, for that matter -- befit a nation committed to justice. The government has already arrested a security guard believed to have recorded the execution scene with a cell phone video camera.
It's hard to overstate what was lost in the chaos of the execution. The government had the chance to show the world and, more important, its own citizens that it was a reliable arbiter of facts and deliverer of justice. It could have portrayed itself as committed to law and order, instead of triggering sectarian protests and strife. It could have taken a step in the direction of stability, but through carelessness or incompetence, it showed a bloodthirstiness that may haunt it for years.
Many Iraqis are bloodthirsty, of course, especially the Shiites who spent decades under Saddam's murderous thumb. They might have been that way under the best of circumstances, given the facts, but American presumptuousness and incompetence in occupying and rebuilding the country haven't helped. Your outlook can't help but adapt to your environment.
The best that can happen now is for the Iraq government to show all of its citizens that it is committed to pursuing this investigation and to holding guilty people accountable, from those who taunted the dictator to those who organized the execution in such a way as to allow it to go so wrong. It may not be enough, given the high-profile nature of last Saturday's execution, but it needs to be done.