- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 2, 2007

The witch is dead, and the Iraqi government (and a lot of the rest of us) got the carnival the Shi’ites demanded.

But now the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is not so sure a carnival was such a good idea. The Baghdad government, pushed by Washington, yesterday ordered an investigation of what it had wrought, the filming of the taunting of Saddam Hussein in the last few moments before he stepped into oblivion.

“There were a few guards who shouted slogans that were inappropriate, and that’s now the subject of a government investigation,” a spokesman for the prime minister says. It’s not clear how or why the government could have expected anything else. Cell phone-cameras are commonplace, and a lot of people indulge a morbid fascination with death and celebrity.

The hanging of Saddam illustrates the least savory aspect of capital punishment, the debasing and coarsening of the public sensibility in whose name death is done. The gruesome Iraqi gala on the gallows was inevitable, given the depth of outrage at Saddam’s imaginatively brutal expression of evil and the culture of evil that his dictatorship spawned. Never has a man deserved the ultimate punishment more.

But the rest of us deserve something better. Executions always brutalize the public sensibility. Even the most ardent fans of the chair, the gallows, the poison needle and the firing squad concede this. When the most heinous killers are put to death in America, there’s often a ritual gathering of a mob at the prison gates, armed with homemade signs and banners, chanting for revenge. You might think that the act of dispatching criminals to the divine verdict from which there is no appeal would strike fear and awe in the hearts of spectators, but if you think that you haven’t been paying attention.

Our English cousins reluctantly gave up boiling criminals alive not all that long ago, as history measures time. When they did they took up hanging with enthusiasm, and soon gallows were erected at every crossroads. Some of the hanging machines were privately owned and operated. The abbot of Westminster kept 16 gallows snapping and thudding in Middlesex alone. John Deane Potter, in his book “The Art of Hanging,” tells of a shipwrecked sailor who climbed out of the sea, not knowing where he was, and scrambled up a cliff to see a gallows. He dropped to his knees in prayer: “Thank God,” he cried, “I was shipwrecked in a Christian country.”

The video of the Saddam spectacle was a smash hit on the Internet through the New Year’s Eve weekend, no doubt all the more desirable for the absence of editing. The videos as broadcast by the television networks in the West were sanitized, stopping short of showing Saddam dropping through the trapdoor. The Internet video shows it all, with Saddam swinging from the rope, his open eyes straining in death from their sockets. This is what a coarsened public wants.

The movement to hang criminals out of sight ended the spectacle of public executions at “the tree at Tyburn,” with their three-hour processions through central London with the mob following the condemned on his way to being throttled. But public hangings remained popular. “They object that the old method drew together a number of spectators,” wrote Dr. Johnson. “Sir, executions are intended to draw spectators. If they do not draw spectators, they do not serve their purpose.”

Occasionally naive advocates of eliminating capital punishment seek the reinstatement of public executions, arguing that the shock and awe of the spectacle would raise such a public outcry that repeal of the death penalty would inevitably follow. These advocates are naive and foolish. Public executions would become immensely popular; the television networks might bid to make them part of the halftime entertainment at the Super Bowl.

When I write about executions, betraying no enthusiasm for them, there’s the inevitable cascade of letters accusing me of wussiehood. One correspondent in Illinois wrote to argue that “executing the rare innocent man is a small price to pay for the good that executions accomplish.” Eager to be a good citizen, I forwarded his name to the governor in event the state needs volunteers to assist in teaching a needed lesson.

Pruden on Politics appears Tuesday and Friday.

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