Most would agree that the Saddam execution video is “watchable” in a way the Nicholas Berg or Daniel Pearl decapitation videos aren’t. But art critic Richard Woodward says it still looks too much like a snuff film, and thus helps cement his legacy as a martyr.
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BOB GARFIELD: If the Saddam video widened the sectarian gulf in Iraq, here in the U.S. there's been something closer to consensus among those who watched it. On Tuesday, Tom Brokaw articulated the queasiness of many during a call to the Imus in the Morning radio show.
TOM BROKAW: To say that we're going to install in Iraq a judicial system and have something that resembles the worst kind of nightmare out of the old American West - Saddam Hussein suddenly becomes a martyr.
BOB GARFIELD: Saddam is hardly the first prisoner to die in mass-mediated death. In the 19th century the execution of Mexican Emperor Maximilian of Hapsburg was painted by Edouard Manet. But it was photography that really brought official executions to life, so to speak, as in 1865, when John Wilkes Booth's collaborators were hanged.
After World War II, photos were snapped at the hanging of Nazis at Nuremberg and Japanese war criminals at Sugamo Prison. And video came along just in time to catch the execution of Romanian strongman Nicolae Ceausescu.
In The Wall Street Journal on Thursday, art critic Richard Woodward wrote that these images are hugely influential in shaping the legacies of those executed. And so, he's troubled by the Saddam video in just about every way but one.
RICHARD WOODWARD: I think the primary benefit is that there will not now be a conspiracy theory that Saddam is coming back. Hitler committed suicide, and his body was hidden for years and years, and the pictures were not seen. That allowed all kinds of rumors to float around for years that he was still alive and coming back.
So this certainly puts an end, I think, to that idea. But I think that exhausts the benefits of the way it was done.
BOB GARFIELD: The video that we saw on the Internet was shot with a cell phone, and [is] therefore fairly grainy and jumpy. Does that affect how we perceive the event itself?
RICHARD WOODWARD: Oh, very much so. I think the way the Lincoln co-conspirators were photographed and the way the Nuremberg and the Sugamo Prison Japanese war criminals were photographed was done with a measure of dignity. And this has the skeaviness of an underground violent porn film. That aspect contributes to its unseemliness.
BOB GARFIELD: It's supposed to look like rule of law. In the end, it just comes out as hooliganism.
RICHARD WOODWARD: Exactly. And he actually has a stoic appearance and actually appears more dignified than his executors. There have been a number of snuff films and executions during the last five or six years, from the Daniel Pearl video to the Nicholas Berg video, which I myself cannot watch, because they're so gruesome, and the people being killed are relatively powerless.
But Saddam was a monster, and it's sad that the people who killed him - and there's certainly plenty of evidence that he deserved to die - but they have handed him this platform to go out with a certain amount of style, if that's not too grotesque a word.
BOB GARFIELD: You saw this video. Me too, although like you I've intentionally avoided all the previous video gruesomeness from Iraq and elsewhere. Now, I don't believe in capital punishment, yet I scarcely hesitated to see Saddam Hussein being hanged. And at least a million others behaved the same way on YouTube alone. Any thoughts as to why?
RICHARD WOODWARD: Well, I was shocked to learn that many people watched the Daniel Pearl video, watched the Nicholas Berg video out of curiosity, and in some ways to steel themselves or to become enraged. There are any number of reasons why we look at something and why we have a voyeuristic interest in it.
I shared with you that feeling that I didn't hesitate so much because it was of historic importance, just as I didn't really hesitate to look at pictures of the Ceausescu dead or Mussolini dead. I felt a certain measure of relief. That was dissipated or destroyed by the way it was done, and by the repercussions that I think will follow from this.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, then if this was a botched job, if it was too much of a snuff film for comfort, in your view, how would the video documentation of the execution of a convicted tyrant been done?
RICHARD WOODWARD: Well, I'm certainly not an expert on how one should dispatch of a tyrant, but I think even to have done it in a clean, lighted place, rather than in a sort of dungeon, would have contributed to the dignity of the occasion. As it is, it looks like a basement tape.
BOB GARFIELD: So what it needed was better production values.
RICHARD WOODWARD: Well, in some way you could say that.
BOB GARFIELD: Richard, thank you very much.
RICHARD WOODWARD: Thank you. I enjoyed being here.
BOB GARFIELD: Richard B. Woodward is a New York arts critic. His piece, Subtext Message: The Cell Phone Video of Saddam's Execution, appeared in The Wall Street Journal.