Am I mistaken, or is the execution of Saddam Hussein the world's first worldwide official public hanging?
While I am certain that the world is a better place without Hussein, I am not certain that it is a better place for us having reached this particular macabre milestone. A return to public hangings, using the whole Internet as the village square, does not seem to me a step forward for humanity.
There was a time when, even in places like London, public executions were "perhaps the most anticipated and popular form of mass entertainment." From PBS:
. . . the punishment of criminals that was perhaps the most anticipated and popular form of mass entertainment. Whippings, floggings, being paraded through the streets in chains and enduring the "pillory" -- an open forum for mockery and verbal abuse -- were common punishments for petty crimes. Executions were an even more elaborate affair and quite often were set aside as public holidays. Occasionally, engraved invitations would be sent out. . . . Large crowds of rowdy, jeering onlookers - sometimes in numbers of 30,000 or more (80,000 was the record) -- would arrive in the morning to follow the prisoner to the hanging platform.
Of course, nothing like this can happen these days without being a carefully staged media event. If the public opinion in the US were to be that public exectutions are beneficial to the public, the State of Texas, all by itself, could have its own Execution Channel. So I wonder, out loud, what were the intentions of those who staged this media event. Clearly, this is intended as a world-changing event.
But what kind?
UPDATE: Tony Blair's response to the execution seems to me to display an acute awareness of England's own history of execution as a form of entertainment. This is from this morning's New York Times:
Perhaps the most delicately choreographed response came from Britain, whose prime minister, Tony Blair, took a lead as America’s closest ally in toppling Mr. Hussein while his Labor Party prides itself on opposing the death penalty.
In a statement issued an hour after the execution, Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary, said: “I welcome the fact that Saddam Hussein has been tried by an Iraqi court for at least some of the appalling crimes he committed against the Iraqi people. He has now been held to account.”
However, she said, "the British government does not support the use of the death penalty, in Iraq or anywhere else. We advocate an end to the death penalty worldwide, regardless of the individual or the crime. We have made our position very clear to the Iraqi authorities, but we respect their decision as that of a sovereign nation."
Mr. Blair himself — who faced wide public opposition to the Iraq war, which has shaped his political legacy — refrained from commenting as he vacationed at the Miami waterfront home of Robin Gibb, a singer in the BeeGees. A spokesman for him said Ms. Beckett’s statement had been issued on behalf of the entire government, including Mr. Blair.
One does wonder if he watched the execution video with a BeeGee. Oh, the post-modernity of it!
Nonetheless, I'd say Blair's response shows an awareness of the larger cultural implications of reviving the tradition of public hanging as spectacle on a global basis.
Do we really want this sort of thing in our Internet Utopia? I don't.