The March of Civilisation
Posted on 1-February-2007
"The public execution is to be understood not only as a judicial, but also as a political ritual. It belongs, even in minor cases, to the ceremonies by which power is manifested."
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish
Othello: Naked abed, Iago, and not mean harm! It is hypocrisy against the devil.
William Shakespeare, Othello, Act IV, Scene I
As I stood on the veranda of the house I was staying in during home leave one year, doing nothing, vacantly watching the world go by, a group of workmen on the road, armed with pickaxes, shovels and spades, walking, I supposed, to their worksite, caught my attention. Some wore intense, forward gazes, walking purposefully forward; some ambled lazily along and yet others merrily backslapped each other and laughed as they went by. There was one strongly built, heavy-jawed man among them who recalled for me my image of the zinjanthropos, an early anthropoid ape I had been reading about the previous night in a book about the hunt for hominid fossils in Olduvai Gorge. I imagined groups of zinjanthropos on the African savannah setting out to gather food, looking not too different from the group of workmen I had just seen going by. Then I thought of the thousands of men and women belched out by commuter trains and rushing along, whether in the concourse of the Grand Central in Manhattan or outside a commuter railway station in any major modern city, some carrying laptop computers, others with the day's newspaper pressed under their armpits or sheaves of paper in their hands and some others empty-handed. I thought that though they belonged to different levels of civilisation, the zinjanthropos, the workmen with digging tools and the commuters streaming out of a railway station in a modern metropolis were similar to each other in one essential, unchanging respect: the most important part of their daily work had to do with their livelihood and sustenance. I thought of the many other things people did whose basic nature was not touched by the advance of technological civilisation.
My leave ended and these idle thoughts sank into the deep recesses of my subconscious mind, which is where they remained for many years until they were brought back into conscious thought in the morning of 30th December last year when the television announced that Saddam Hussein had been hanged in Baghdad. The US cable news organisation, the CNN, said in its first news bulletins that the news had been given out by two media outlets reputed to be close to the US armed forces in Iraq. The CNN also said that Saddam Hussein's hanging had been officially video filmed and that after due deliberations internally, it would decide which parts of that film it would telecast. It was put out that the reason for making the video film was that the authorities were anxious to present visible evidence that Saddam Hussein had indeed been hanged and remove any possibility of myth-making about him. A columnist, writing in the Daily Telegraph of London some weeks later gave the same justification for the making of the official film and giving it out in public--not a very convincing reason as the purpose of keeping a record of the execution could well have been served by other means such as a still photograph showing Saddam Hussein's body being handed over to his kinsmen. There were early reports on the day of the hanging, citing senior Iraqis, saying that before his hanging Saddam Hussein was nervous and asked some incoherent questions.
In the extracts from the official video recording telecast by among others the CNN and the BBC World Television, Saddam Hussein came across as the opposite of the pathetic, cowering figure the American troops had found in that rat hole near Tikrit three and a half years earlier. No one watching those extracts from the execution scene could possibly have helped being impressed by the quiet dignity of the man's demeanour as the hangman placed the noose round his neck and as he was led to the platform of the scaffold. It would not have escaped his captors that this public hanging of the man would enhance rather than diminish his image. It is this perhaps that forced the Iraqi government and the American authorities to make a number of retreats. The earlier decision to bury him in secret was obviously changed and Saddam Hussein's body handed over to his kinsfolk for burial in his home village. The "secret", "unauthorised" shots taken by cell phones in the execution chamber were "denounced" by the Iraqi government just as they gave the opportunity to an American general in Baghdad to say that had the Americans carried out the execution, they would have done things differently. Newspaper stories were published detailing how, in the absence on leave from Baghdad of American Ambassador Khalilzad and American General Abizaid, their deputies tried their best though unsuccessfully to persuade the Iraqi government to delay Saddam Hussein's execution, at least till after Id el Adha.
There would doubtless be many people in the US government shrewd enough to know that these American attempts to distance themselves from the manner and timing of Saddam Hussein's hanging do not convince even neutral people, leave alone Arab and Muslim masses, firstly because a posteriori explanations look suspect in most circumstances. Secondly since Saddam Hussein was held prisoner by American troops until two or three hours before his execution, it greatly stretches anyone's credulity to think the Americans could not have delayed the execution or prevented the publication of execution scenes had they really wanted to. It is easier to believe that they connived or acquiesced in both.
There is another, deeper reason for doubting American protestations of innocence. Saddam Hussein's public hanging, the latest in a series of episodes in America's second Iraq war, is of a piece with them: the plundering of Baghdad and its art treasures in the wake of the city's fall to American troops, the puerile triumphalism (Mission accomplished; "Gentlemen, wegatt'm" or something like that), impulses towards the debunking of International Conventions about the treatment of war prisoners or those against torture, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, numerous civilian deaths described by the dehumanising expression "collateral damage", Guantanamo Bay, and the "rendition" flights--this is not a pretty picture and there is very little in it to suggest that the protagonists of this war, supposedly being fought to defend the values of the civilised world, are any less brutal, inhuman or cruel than more primitive peoples fighting more primitive wars.
In very broad terms, America's second Iraq War started as the joint enterprise of a handful of self-serving Iraqi exiles of little credibility and those members of the Bush administration who as members of the administration of the 41st American President had been witnesses to the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the swift US victory in Iraq in 1991. Having convinced themselves of the military omnipotence of the United States of America, they displayed little tolerance for dissidence and even less capacity for self-criticism (e.g. arrogant treatment of the United Nations and its Secretary General, refusal to admit mistakes and unwillingness to even consider changing course). Saddam Hussein was the monster they set out to destroy, undeterred by such niceties as legal and moral justifications for their invasion of Iraq. Baghdad fell and Saddam Hussein was captured. Entirely plausibly, those who have been running this pointless and seemingly endless war of America in Iraq would have thought of Saddam Hussein's hanging in public as the final act of his destruction and the ultimate demonstration of America's might to the followers of Saddam Hussein, actual, potential or putative.
Much of the world had over the past two centuries or so come to consider it part of civilised behaviour that executions of those sentenced to death be carried out in private, witnessed by no more than five or six officials, and that the dying man be treated with dignity. In recent times, whoever breached this code--for example the Baathist regime of Iraq in the late 1960's, the Taliban in Kabul when they took the city and Islamic militants in Pakistan when they beheaded Daniel Pearl in front of cameras and other Islamic militants in Iraq who likewise beheaded others in front of cameras--caused widespread revulsion. There is no essential in which the public hanging of Saddam Hussein--I mean the official video recording of the event--is any different from those other modern public executions except that Saddam Hussein's execution took place on the watch of the United States of America. Those carrying out such public executions and television organisations which so zealously broadcast such events have made television viewers like me--I have never been strong enough to turn away or switch off my television set whenever such bloody sights are shown--part of the canaille which in eighteenth century Paris or London would gather near an execution site and cheer, shout and clap each time a head rolled or a body hung.
The events in Iraq during the last three years and ten months should remind us of a few simple truths. There are no just wars and the only justifiable wars are those that are fought in self defence. War, which brutalises all those who take part in it, is the antithesis of civilisation. Just as there is no essential difference between the modern office worker making his daily journey to his workplace by train, the simple worker with his digging tool going to his site and the zinjanthropos setting out to gather food, there is no difference between modern soldiers with their modern weapons, more primitive fighters armed with lances, bows and arrows and groups of chimpanzees engaged in murderous fight--and, in the same way, the fundamental nature of war has not changed. An American brutally killing an Arab is no different from an Arab equally brutally killing an American. Saddam Hussein in three decades of his tyrannical, repressive rule probably killed 200,000 Iraqis. In three years and ten months of America's war in Iraq at least 100,000 Iraqis have been killed and some tens of thousands have died in inter-Iraqi sectarian killing. In a setting of this kind, the word civilisation has very little meaning.
When I think of America, I think of its many gifts to the world: the telephone and the internet; the electric bulb and the aeroplane; the transistor and the laser. It is through America's achievements that I am able to get a glimpse of the interior of distant galaxies and know what the surface of Mars is made of and of the structure of the DNA. I would like to think of America as the country of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and of their ideas on politics and governance. It is this face of America which the world finds attractive and not the face it shows in Iraq.