I had resolved not to say anything here about the recent restoration of public hanging as a symbol of democratic values (other than the odd comment on other people’s blogs here and there), but then I read Sam Leith’s superb, righteously indignant column in today’s Daily Telegraph, in which he takes a rather different line to the “ding, dong, the witch is dead!” tone of most of the Telegraph’s coverage of Saddam’s death.
“You can’t beat a good hanging,” Leith begins, before observing that:
What we’ve been seeing over the past couple of days is the pornographisation of a judicial process. There’s no question that Saddam’s crimes were terrible. There’s no question that, however jury-rigged the legal process by which he was held to account for them, it is proper that he was held to account. But our fever of excitement over that hempen rope is no more than the baying of a mob.
Leith points out that it is “telling” that the announcement of the death sentence was greeted “with far less excitement than its physical enactment”. The sentence was the moment that mattered; “the rest is theatre”:
And, gosh, how we enjoyed it. The formula was unvarying. “All dignity lost,” one or other news channel would intone, “the blood-soaked tyrant of Iraq died yesterday, reduced to the status of a common criminal.” Aren’t the assumptions underpinning that simply bizarre? It seems to suggest that a “common criminal” is a worse thing to be than a mass-murdering despot – that where he really got his comeuppance was in being taken down a peg or two and dying a chav.
And as Leith goes on to argue, the general assumption that Saddam was humiliated by this process is belied by the footage we have seen:
If we were honest, we’d admit that Saddam conducted himself on the scaffold with all the dignity he could be expected to muster. He refused a mask. He stood up straight. He went quietly and prayerfully to his death.
What was undignified was what was going on around him:
Meanwhile, as a colleague points out, what was happening around him – even though the balaclavas were unavoidable – more closely resembled a gang of provos at work in an Armagh back-room than the sober unrolling of a sovereign state’s judicial process. Let’s not even begin to think about how these images will play with Saddam’s Sunni supporters.
Yes, Saddam was a monster (though, as Leith rightly reminds us, “a monster whom … the West for a long time supported in full knowledge of the nature of his regime”). But this only amplifies the danger to our own souls, as individuals and as a culture:
Nietzsche’s warning that “he who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster” has seldom seemed more apt. The rhetoric of a war launched in the name of civilisation has degenerated into the cackling of a tricoteuse at the foot of the guillotine. We should be bloody ashamed.
Too bloody right we should be. And I say this as someone who has been caught up by the “pornography of death” surrounding Saddam’s end too much to pass judgment on anyone else for doing so.