They couldn’t organise a hanging on a gallows
The furore over Saddam's 'X-ecution Factor' hanging reveals the state of Iraq – and the West's state of mind.
Those mobile phone pictures of the undignified execution of Saddam Hussein provided a grim snapshot of the state of the Iraq war – and the moribund state of the debate about Iraq in Britain and the West.
‘They couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery’ is a traditional British description of incompetence and organisational chaos. After the debacle of Saddam’s execution, the US-led Coalition and its Iraqi allies have surely inspired an alternative version. They couldn’t organise a hanging on a gallows.
They claimed that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was justified in order to overthrow a dangerous tyrant. Almost four years later, they have managed the not inconsiderable achievement of making that dictator look like a victim and a martyr. For their part, leading Western critics now seem more concerned about how the images of the hanging looked around the world than with what is happening on the ground in Iraq.
Long before Saddam stepped on to the gallows, his trial was proving a political disaster for the Coalition. This was supposed to be the moment that legitimised the post-invasion regime and bestowed authority on the new Iraqi state. Instead the trial descended into farce. The authorities wanted it over as quickly as possible. So they sentenced Saddam to death at the first opportunity, for a relatively obscure 1982 massacre, to avoid embarrassing revelations about the West’s support for Saddam at the time of more infamous incidents, such as the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds at Halabja in 1988. Within days of being sentenced to death, Saddam was back in court to face genocide charges. But the Coalition and it allies had seen enough of this circus, so his sentence was rushed through before that trial had even begun (see The Coalition has been Saddamned by this trial, too, by Brendan O’Neill).
However, coming at the end of such a transparent showtrial the execution posed more problems for a Coalition that had invaded Iraq behind the banner of (among many others) human rights. This inevitably laid the Iraqi authorities, not to mention President George W Bush and UK prime minister Tony Blair, open to allegations of abuse and injustice from the growing army of international human rights lawyers.
Even Bush himself, who supposedly champions capital punishment and whose administration had described Saddam as worse than Hitler and Stalin, had no immediate comment on the execution because, we were told, he had been asleep at the time – rather like those football managers who claim not to have been able to see some controversial incident involving their players. As for Blair’s government, it wanted to be rid of Saddam but not to be seen cheering an execution. So New Labour made little conscientious squeaks of protest, while mumbling about not interfering with Iraqi sovereignty – not, it should be said, a principle that had ever seemed to trouble its collective conscience before.
Then came the release of the mobile phone video footage, showing the executioners taunting Saddam and chanting support for the radical Shia cleric, Moqtadr al-Sadr. This has started another storm of international protest. It is hardly unusual for fallen leaders to be bullied, taunted, tortured and executed, with far less fuss. Just this week I saw some old TV film footage of an African president, deposed in a coup backed by the CIA almost 50 years ago, being publicly humiliated before he was dragged away to be shot without trial. But the pictures of Saddam being taunted on the gallows have caused a stir by giving a glimpse of the true state of Iraq, and touching a raw nerve in the West.
Those images provided a glaring illustration of how the Iraqi state has collapsed and sectarian strife between Shia and Sunni has intensified since the invasion overthrew Saddam. Contrary to what many critics have claimed, this was not a ‘colonial hanging’ that showed the power of the West. Far from it: the old colonial powers were far better organised when it came to dispatching troublesome ‘wogs’. Instead this was a hanging that revealed how far out of America’s or anybody’s control Iraqi society has slipped. Iraq is a phantom state without any central authority, where the government’s handpicked volunteer hangmen can turn out to be sectarian political militants, while government officials film the gory spectacle on illicit mobiles.
Of course the USA and Britain are invading powers in Iraq. But far from exercising colonial-style domination over the country, these embarrassing events confirm that the Coalition cannot even control what goes on within the Baghdad Green Zone where the American military is bunkered down. Bush has now indicated his intention to send in a ‘surge’ of thousands more US troops to pacify Iraq. They will be no more able to fill the hole in the heart of that society. Nor will they be able to ‘win’ what is increasingly a civil war. Meanwhile, the prime minister of Iraq says things are so bad he does not want the job and wishes he could quit right now. It seems as if the Americans and Brits, who for more than a century ran much of the world via local leaders who were seen as ‘bastards, but our bastards’, can no longer find reliable ‘bastards’.
Yet if those pictures revealed something about the political crisis in Iraq, the reaction in the West has also been revealing about the cultural state of mind over here.
In our image-obsessed culture, for example, it was striking that prominent critics of Saddam’s execution seemed far less concerned about what had gone on than the way in which it had been surreptitiously filmed and sent around the world. Deputy prime minister John Prescott (a politician who knows from bitter experience what damage a revealing photo can do) went on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme to harrumph about it: ‘Frankly, to get the kind of recorded messages coming out is totally unacceptable, and I think whoever was involved or responsible for it should be ashamed of themselves.’ Note that it is the secret film of the hanging which is totally unacceptable, and the filmmakers who should be ashamed, rather than the execution or the executioners. As we have argued on spiked throughout, the obsession with how events in Iraq are perceived has been a theme since before the invasion was launched. From the first this has been a war without clear-cut aims, beyond the search for a militarised PR victory. (See Hollow victory in the war that never was, by Mick Hume; Propaganda defensive, by Brendan O’Neill.)
But however much Prescott or snooty senior broadcasters might disapprove of the uneducated public having access to the pictures, they have become the latest fodder for our society’s voyeuristic appetites. It is as if the ‘authentic’ hand-held quality of the pictures makes it seem more like a stunt from Jackass or an audition for reality TV – ‘X-ecution Factor’ maybe. And the anxieties expressed about the impact of circulating such images seems almost like a surreal echo of the panic about ‘happy slapping’ videos on mobile phones. Except that it’s ‘happy hanging’ in this case.
And perhaps that is what was most compulsively shocking to a Western audience. This was not reality TV – it was reality. Unlike even the infamous mobile phone pictures of US soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, these images were not posed for the camera. Those taunting Saddam did not seem aware that they were being filmed at all. Theirs was a genuine outpouring of hatred, of wanting to kill their enemy, and rejoicing at his imminent death. Such black passions unleashed in a life-and-death struggle are a world away from the phoney wars of politics as we know it, and have scared even leading opponents of the war into talking about Iraqis as a bestial lynch mob.
Of course it would be better if ‘these things’ could be done with decorum, but few will shed a tear for Saddam. We certainly do not need to repeat the neo-Stalinist line proposed by some on the left, suggesting that this was the colonial murder of the ‘constitutional president’ of Iraq. It is enough to say that the chaos in Iraq demonstrates the general rule that such interventions solve nothing but, if anything, make matters worse. And the debacle of the execution confirms that we live in a time when power is wielded without political purpose, and even the world’s one superpower cannot organise a hanging on a gallows.
Those images make, as I say, for a grim snapshot of a moment in history, both in Iraq and in the West. Some have defensively suggested that at least the ‘leaking’ of that video proves that Saddam really was executed. Or to put it another way, in the mood of the times: if history is not recorded on a mobile phone camera today, did it really happen?
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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