Commentary Magazine


Citizen Hussein at the Gallows

Much has been said (including by contentions blogger Emanuele Ottolenghi) about the execution of Saddam Hussein, including vocal criticism of the widely disseminated photographs and videos of the event. These images are indeed disquieting—and not merely because of the noose and the hooded executioners they show in such detail. Their uncomfortable closeness to the proceedings themselves, placing us upon the scaffold rather than at a safe remove, also disturbs the viewer. When news got out that vicious taunting accompanied the hanging, it seemed oddly understandable: although despicable, these taunts were the only note of human feeling in the grim efficiency of the proceeding.

The remorselessly bureaucratic character of Hussein’s hanging, conducted behind closed doors and without ceremony, was presumably intended to avoid creating a cult of martyrdom around him. There is a long history of such attempts at avoidance, as is shown in a recent essay by the art historian Samuel Edgerton, entitled “When Even Artists Encouraged the Death Penalty.”

When Charles I was executed in England in 1649, the proceedings were carefully choreographed. The method of execution then current in England was a medieval one: noblemen were dispatched as they knelt upright by an executioner standing behind them—letting them die in an attitude of dignified prayer. But Charles was made to place his head upon a block, which had been whittled down so low that the king had to prostrate himself, removing him from the sight of the volatile populace of London. Not until woodcuts of the scene were rushed into distribution did the public know how the king had comported himself.

The public execution of France’s Louis XVI, although savage by modern standards, prefigures the bureaucratic capital punishment of modern times. The guillotine was created as a rational form of execution, meant to be as painless as possible, and to seem impersonal. In its mechanical regularity and looming presence the public was meant to see the rationality and power of the nascent modern state. And so the vanquished king was executed as Citizen Capet*, a public demonstration of the final subjugation of all to the state.

Our era is more squeamish about such displays: think of the hygenic, secretive conditions under which criminals are executed in this country. But Hussein was no mere criminal; he was a genocidal tyrant, and his execution deserves a place in public memory, even at the risk of making a martyr of him. If the images of Hussein’s grim, efficient execution are disturbing, we might consider how disturbing it would be if there were no images at all.

* Correction: “Citizen Capet” originally read “Citizen Capulet.”