No, seriously. Why has the Western world romanticized the concept of the execution? Sir Thomas More. Marie Antoinette. Joan of Arc, John the Baptist, Jesus Christ. Dead Man Walking. Paths of Glory. The Green Mile. It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known. I regret that I only have one life to lose for my country. Hang down your head, Tom Dooley, hang down your head and cry.
If we're on the side of the condemned, the execution can be a noble act of sacrifice or the sad realization of an inevitable consequence. The latter works even better if we know, or believe we know, of their innocence. If we don't like the condemned, the execution is denoument. Justice rightly served. A bad end to a bad egg and a lesson well learned.
The fictionalized accounts are always orchestrated perfectly to pull at one string or another of the human spirit. No matter which side we're on, there's always the prolonged snare drumroll to build the tension, the one final look on the face of the condemned, a "ready... aim..." if this is to be done with a firing squad, and then, if this is true Hollywood, a cut to something else so we're spared the agony of actually having to watch someone "die." If the instrument of death is a guillotine, we'll see the top of it as the blade falls. We can watch the firing squad without viewing their target. Gas and lethal injections are completely easy -- just cut to the spectator's gallery. Hangings, now hangings are hard if you're not using a giant heavily-built scaffold which conceals the person as they drop. But all we really need to see in this case are two feet dangling from the top of our field of vision. Besides, if the accused in this case is a cowboy atop a horse, chances are he's gonna get out of this fix anyway.
The reality of an execution, of course, is far ghastlier than a noble buildup and a quick cut to a reaction shot. This does not deter curiosity, a far more powerful motivator than fear in some cases.
So it goes with Saddam Hussein's execution.
Late Friday night and into Saturday morning, I kept close tabs on Hussein's imminent execution by reading the Something Awful forums. Sure, it may not be your number one choice of news, but as far as breaking reports go, you really can't beat a couple dozen Goons keeping up with CNN screenshots and the like. I remember reading the forums on September 11, 2001. I kept the TV was constantly on for 36 hours straight, but that was mostly for wallpaper media. I read instead the gigantic 9/11 thread as it happened, observing tons of posts from people just like me who were trying to figure it all out. And a few folks who wanted to be the first to make a tasteless joke about the whole thing, which broke the unspoken "Too Soon" moratorium on current events jokes. (As a point of comparison, I heard the first tasteless jokes about the Challenger explosion in the summer of 1986, a full six months plus after the event. I saw my first 9/11 Photoshop joke -- basically a screencap of the towers burning made to look like a game of Counter-Strike, complete with the words "Terrorists Win" superimposed on top -- at about noon or 1 PM on the day of the attack.)
At any rate, despite the fact that breaking news threads will always diverge, bringing flamewars, petty arguments or jackasses who turn the latest screencap into a quick joke, the fact remains that any incoming bulletins will be faithfully and quickly reported by any number of vigilant news watchers. It's an intriguing ad hoc news aggregator, really. It is far more interesting for me to constantly refresh an Internet message board thread and read new posts by new readers with new opinions, however jackassed, than it is to sit and watch the same talking heads on the news channels stalling for time in between bulletins, repeating the same talking points and showing the same recycled footage over and over and over again, only to be periodically interrupted by cartoon bears who just want to tell the nice people about the toilet paper.
The Something Awful thread behaved as well as could be expected while we were spinning our wheels for the news we were waiting to hear. Once reports came in that Hussein had indeed been executed, things got a bit bloodthirsty. There were immediate rumors of video footage that would be "released shortly" and then that's all anybody wanted to know. Where's the video? There's got to be a video. Look, CNN is showing footage of Hussein walking into the execution chamber and having the noose placed around his neck. That's it? Who's got the rest of it? We don't want a quick cut to a reaction shot here, we want the full and gory details. We want to see the bastard swing! Who's got the video?
Approximately six hours after the execution news hit, if I'm remembering correctly, someone posted the link to the clandestine recording of the execution made from a cameraphone. This was both fascinating and lurid at the same time. I mean, smuggled footage. That's incredible. It brought to mind Ruth Snyder's 1928 execution in New York City. You may not know the name and, honestly, the details of her marital infidelity and terribly clumsy murder of her husband would be inconsequential today if not for the controversy around her electrocution. A newspaperman from Chicago, working for the New York Daily News, attended the execution with a clandestine camera strapped to his leg. He snapped a grainy, blurry shot of Snyder in the electric chair just as the executioner pulled the switch. The next day, the Daily News ran that photo as their entire front page, with the simple headline "DEAD!" above in large point bold. That audacity, and the furor it caused, still can inspire journalistic arguments 80 years after the fact.
Today, however, the lowly cameraphone has trumped the Chicago photographer. Instead of one grainy, blurry shot, we've got full-motion video. It's incredible -- the immediate accessibility, I mean. Not the execution, though the actual execution was really captivating. It went against everything Hollywood loves to show. Somehow it provided a more compelling moment than anything Frank Darabont could've scripted, though.
I watched the cameraphone execution three times -- the first time I watched the original footage from the website and then, once the website crumbled under the weight of the downloaders, I found a Google video mirror. Then I watched most of it again from CNN's site with subtitles (they stop the video just before the trap door is opened.) Really, once the trap door is opened the scene turns to chaos; the camera, on a lower level, captures the image of Saddam falling through the floor, and then the picture turns black as everybody rushes the scaffolding. You see nothing but quick steps on the floor and other people up until the cameraphone gets one quick, dark look at the man's snapped neck.
But what really got me was the point where the cameraphone quickly points to the floor during the proceedings. With the subtitles on, this happens just as someone says "Let's not have that. A man is being executed here." However, just before that, one of the executioners has repeatedly taunted Hussein with "Straight to hell. Straight to hell." Clearly the admonishment was aimed at the taunter, but the photographer is clearly aware he's not supposed to be doing what he's doing. However, after a few moments of feigned innocence, he brings the camera back and continues shooting. For some reason that really brought things into perspective for me. This really was smuggled footage.
The other thing I noticed was they sprung the trapdoor while Saddam was in mid-sentence. I had heard he talked a little trash about Muqtada al-Sadr and tried to mock the executioners for cowardice, so I had thought they'd hung him in mid-rant. The translations proved otherwise. They hung him as he was going through the Shahadah (the Islamic creed; a personal profession of one's faith) for a second time. And already I've seen reports to this effect that state he died saying "Muhammad."
Martyrdom is fully assured. If Hussein had been left to live out the rest of his days in a dark prison, I am reasonably sure some band of extremists at one point or another would take hostages and demand his release in return for their safety. Now, however, dying with the name of Muhammad on his lips, the self-titled martyr might just get the chance to posthumously enjoy vicious acts of retaliation performed in his name.
And what was the reaction of some of the SA goons once this video was released? Complaints. Complaints about the quality of the video. It was shaky. It was hastily taken. It didn't show everything (meaning it didn't show the actual neck breaking, the actual moment of death, the facial contortions of the condemned, the pants-soiling, etc.) And just as the cameraphone rumor had started, further rumors began to pop up that there was an HD video shot at the same time, and so all the cynically jaded kids, eager for more, began to clamor for that. It wasn't enough for them that someone had smuggled a cameraphone into an execution chamber and taken full video. The video wasn't good enough for them. They wanted to see CNN-quality footage.
Why do we romanticize executions again?
When I was a kid, I came into the possession of a 1944 compilation of jokes, limericks, anecdotes, and cartoons. It was a dark green hardcover book, it was huge, and it was a marvelous glimpse into this world of the 20s, 30s and 40s with probably more than its fare share of material swiped directly from the pages of The New Yorker and the like. I can't remember its name nor who compiled it, but I do remember there were cartoons by the likes of Charles Addams and Peter Arno in it. One of these cartoons featured a bald and lunkheaded but babyfaced criminal, dressed in the stereotypical prisoner's striped outfit, standing on the gallows with a rope around his neck. In view of the police and others, he is calmly reading some prepared remarks into a radio microphone, his last words broadcast around the globe.
The caption read "And finally, folks, tonight's program has been brought to you by the makers of Hempo-Rope... never stretches, never breaks..."