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The Aesthetics of Execution

Am Johal, January 2, 2007

Why would someone with a ruthless persona like Saddam Hussein evoke a kind of confused sympathy around the world?

It is ironic, that in his final moments of life, Saddam Hussein, the half-baked "Butcher of Baghdad," appeared more dignified than his executioners — anonymous hooded police officers, randomly chosen, hastily carrying out last-minute orders while taunting him. The cell phone video that was shown with a minute of advertising preceding it on Western media Web sites just added to the impromptu and anti-climactic nature of the event.

They were carrying out the red card that Hussein himself had issued on many others. It was like a World Cup match and the Muslims on the Hajj were infuriated.

But the execution was an amateur, botched operation which reeked of incompetence on the eve of a Muslim religious holiday. Apparently the execution chamber had a foul odour. Saddam was being sacrificed, partially for the violation of human rights, but also for not being a doormat to American empire.

Some of his last words were, "Down with the traitors, the Americans, the spies and the Persians." When he was handed over to Iraqi guards by U.S. forces, he exchanged curses with them.

In the end, Saddam Hussein was hung in an execution chamber that he had created, and often and ruthlessly used against his enemies.

The New York Times reported that Mr. Hussein "wore a 1940s-style wool cap, a scarf and a long black coat over a white collared shirt."

After his verdict was read to him, Saddam shouted, "Long live the nation!, Long live the people! Long live the Palestinians!" He asked for his copy of the Koran to be given to Bandar, a son of a Revolutionary Court judge who was also about to be executed.

As they began to pray near the gallows, the guards taunted him by calling out the name of radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

As one of the guards became angry, they told Saddam, "You have destroyed us. You have killed us. You have made us live in destitution."

Mr. Hussein was scornful: "I have saved you from destitution and misery and destroyed your enemies, the Persians and Americans."

The guard cursed him. "God damn you."

Mr. Hussein replied back, "God damn you."

The images which emerged were aesthetically similar to those showing Iraqi insurgents beheading foreign journalists on home video cameras.

Were hundreds of thousands of deaths, the billions of dollars to fight this unnecessary war and the charade of judicial process worth this kind of hastily arranged 6 am photo-op? Was this an act of bravado to the Arab world? Or was it to show the Americans that the new regime meant business? Did the trauma imposed upon Shiites and Kurds mean that they were somehow fit to carry out an impartial justice or was this just sweet revenge? Did international law really prevail? Who was more free and was going to live without coercion now in Iraq?

Slovenian academic Slavoj Zizek observed recently that, "'human rights' are, as such, a false ideological universality, which masks and legitimizes a concrete politics of Western imperialism, military interventions and neo-colonialism."

Saddam coined phrases like "the mother of all battles" and was relatively harmless with his cache of errant scud missiles during the first Gulf War — a kind of bumbling foe prone to hyperbole. He was, after all, actively supported by the United States (as was Osama Bin Laden) in the 1980's even though they knew about his human rights violations against Kurds, Shiites and his other political opponents. His picture with Donald Rumsfeld from that era is priceless.

The West grew up with him on their television sets. When he defended himself in court, the whole process was a kind of belated, bloated performance of an amateur theater troupe — a simulation of legal proceeding and a gesture par excellence of democratic process. His legal training from Cairo was finally being put to use in his own defense. Even former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark raised concerns about the arbitrariness of the legal process in Saddam's hearing.

The gun that Saddam was found with in his bunker is now sitting in a room across from George W. Bush's Oval Office — a spoil of war.

For the genius from Austin, Texas, this befits an idea of natural justice and complex metaphor: Daddy didn't get him, so I will.

There was an element of sympathy that the photographs conveyed of a 69-year old man about to face a humiliating death. Just like his capture a few years ago, when he was given a public shaving and dental exam under the din of camera lights before a rabid Western paparazzi, this elusive authoritarian found a way to ridicule his captors. Only the foreign ministers of the European Union raised concerns with the human rights implications of carrying out the death penalty. The U.S. government was clear in expressing that this was Iraqi justice carried out by the Iraqi people.

It was not that long ago that Tony Blair landed in Iraq in a powder blue button-down shirt and read stories to schoolchildren with media in tow to deflect public criticism from the Hutton Inquiry. The whole Iraq war has been fought in the realm of images.

Susan Sontag, in writing about the photography of war, observed, "It is felt that there is something morally wrong with the abstract of reality offered by photography; that one has no right to experience the suffering of others at a distance, denuded of its raw power; that we pay too high a human (or moral) price for those hitherto admired qualities of vision — the standing back from the aggressiveness of the world which frees us for observation and for elective attention."

But perhaps there is something riveting and obscene about seeing the passage of a life in such a public coliseum. Photography and images which capture for time immemorial such a personal moment make us all a little more primitive, more accepting of death, less able to feel, to "have our conscience pricked."

What were his private thoughts? What is the meaning of a life that passes? What is justice?

Why would someone with a ruthless persona like Saddam Hussein evoke a kind of confused sympathy around the world? Why was the propaganda not working? Had we reached our saturation point with war?

Saddam asked not to be hooded during the execution. The gleeful Western media boasted about "The Butcher of Baghdad" facing death with "fear in his eyes."

Saddam was a ruthless murderer, but even murderers have the right to justice do they not? He should have spent the rest of his days in jail, but did he deserve to die like this?

The death penalty only exists in uninformed, ideologically constipated, socially underdeveloped and evangelical societies not unlike the contemporary American and Arab world.

His scarf was placed around his neck. The noose was tightened. The floor dropped. He died in a minute. A life was gone. Many more will be lost in the coming weeks and months.

Wow. We won. Is that what we were supposed to think?

When the powerful go to war, it is the people who suffer.

The last thing the United States needs is more Republicans in government. This was a Republican war, after all — not an American one.

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