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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In Iraq today, Saddam Hussein and his lawyers threatened once again to boycott his trial. They said that they would not appear in court unless they were given better security, and they demanded an investigation of the murder of one of their colleagues. This was all in a letter, they weren't in court. Boycotts, walkouts and outbursts have been regular occurrences during this trial.

For the past three years, Commentator Melissa Waters has been training Iraqi lawyers, and she says that walking out seems to be a feature of the Iraqi legal system.

MELISSA WATERS reporting:

At times over the last nine months, the terrible crimes that Saddam Hussein committed against his own people have been dwarfed by the antics of his defense lawyers. They've used walkouts and boycotts in an attempt to discredit the trial and to turn it into political theater. Iraqi politicians do it to. Sunni politicians staged a walkout of the new Iraqi parliament when it was just a few hours old.

We Americans watch these antics and ask, What's wrong with these people? But through my work with Iraqi judges and lawyers, I've learned that this is simply what I've come to call the great Iraqi walkout. From time to time during our training sessions, one group or another would threaten to walk out whenever the discussion veered a bit too close to their particular hot-button issue.

One time an Australian trainer urged a room full of lawyers to be like pit bulls in defending their clients. In a matter of seconds, the Iraqis had stormed out of the room in protest. The poor trainer was mystified until someone explained to her that for an Iraqi being called a dog is just about as bad as an insult gets.

Still, how many Americans would stage a walkout just because someone called them a bad name? But during my time working with Iraqis, I've come to appreciate that in the context of Iraqi culture, the great Iraqi walkout can have great value. Iraq is what anthropologists call a high-context culture, meaning that notions of honor and saving face are important.

In our training session, the occasional walkout might simply have been a way to defuse the tension in the room and to allow offended parties to defend their honor. And the Iraqis were amazing quick to forgive and to move on, with a sort of no hard feelings attitude that Americans could learn a lot from.

The walkout is certainly not the American way of dealing with conflict, but the question is whether it's a way that works for Iraqis. Besides, we really can't judge today's Iraq by the standards of our own modern democracy. We've had over two centuries to learn to deal with political disagreements. Iraqis have had a few short months.

And how did America's founders deal with conflict during the turbulent early years of our democratic experiment? With a violence that modern Americans would find shocking. The infamous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr was part of a dispute between the first two American political parties. Congressmen caned one another in the hallowed halls of the Capitol itself.

So the next time we have the urge to shake our heads in pity at the latest theatrics coming from the Saddam trial or from Iraq's politicians, we should pause to remember our own history. Of course, terrible bloodshed continues to plague both the trial of Saddam and the creation of the new Iraqi government, and it's simply too early to say whether the Iraqi experiment in democracy will take hold. But for Americans to look for clues to the Iraqis future in the occasional walkout? That just doesn't make sense.

SIEGEL: Melissa Waters teaches international law at Washington and Lee University

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