Public Hanging? We're no better than the Romans.
Marcus Tullius Cicero was put to death in December 43 BC. Cicero had had a mixed record. He had already spent time in exile for putting Roman citizens to death without trial (or, as Cicero himself might have put it, for taking the necessary steps against a dangerous cell of terrorists: it was a “homeland security” problem). But his own execution was itself of dubious legality, masterminded by Mark Antony, in revenge for Cicero’s public smear campaign against him (documented in the speeches we still possess, and know as the Philippics).
Cicero died bravely, stretching his neck to meet the killer’s blade. What happened next is nastier. His head and hands were cut off and put on display on the speaker’s platform in the Forum (these particular parts symbolizing Cicero’s two key weapons: his ability to write and to speak with devastating effect). Antony’s wife, Fulvia, came along, it’s said, and drove her hairpins through the dead man’s tongue.
It was typical Roman behaviour to take vengeance on the body of the enemy, dead or alive. The public humiliation of the corpse goes beyond anything we could possibly countenance. But at least -- so far as we know – it wasn’t accompanied by the sanctimonious double standards that have greeted the public execution of Saddam, and its beaming round the planet. The best attended public execution in history.
The Romans enjoyed their cruelty straight.
We can be grateful, I guess, that the Iraqi authorities decided against plan A, to execute Saddam in front of thousands in a football stadium. But, even leaving aside the truly appalling mobile phone images, the syndicated official souvenir video of the proceedings leading up to the hanging was not much better – and was, in fact, much worse than those who disseminated it tried to pretend.
Most of the Sunday papers managed some pious words, deploring the prurient snooping on Saddam’s final minutes, sprinkled with quotes from the usual liberal suspects. The Mirror was one of the sharpest: “It is a strange and grisly world where the United States President sees a world-wide TV public execution as progress.” Even the Mail asked, “When we were told we were fighting a war for civilisation, is this how we expected it to end?” But fine words like this didn’t stop any of them from splashing Saddam in his noose across their front pages -- the Independent rang the changes with a picture of his head poking out of a body bag. And it didn’t stop most of them having a “Death of the Tyrant” supplement, as if it was a royal wedding. (These, note, were the very papers that in the interests of multi-cultural harmony had refused to publish some cartoons a few months back.)
The official line was that the video had not shown the very last moment when the trap door opened; which apparently made it just about OK. So far as I could see, it did quite the reverse. Stopping before the end, which we were then prompted to imagine for ourselves, made the whole display horribly more titillating. It was the capital punishment equivalent of strip-tease.
Of course, we take it for granted that Roman behaviour was sadistic, beyond our own scale of values. But I did find myself wondering quite how, and how confidently, to draw the line between us and Fulvia.
I also found myself wondering whether our “modernizing” government (whatever their public pronouncements) felt as despondent as I did about the nation’s fast turn backwards – to Tyburn, the Middle Ages and beyond.
Sorry, gloomy thoughts for the New Year (and, as it happens, my birthday).