When Saddam Hussein was executed, people were quick to look at his last moments as a sign of a broken man. It was too quick a judgement. When the video filmed on a mobile phone was released, it showed that despite attempts to send him to the gallows in disgrace, he died with dignity. His big gob rattled on until the very end. Some translations have him saying, "Do you consider this bravery?" and other translations, "Do you consider this manly behaviour?" He was asking his tormentors whether they were being macho in their behaviour by kicking a man as he was about to literally fall through the trapdoor.
Saddam Hussein was a brute, in every sense of the word. A man who could never be forgiven for his actions. He was a butcher, a butcher of men, hands stained with the blood of millions. But he was a man no less. The Observer's Peter Beaumont has written a painfully balanced take on his life. Was Saddam a monster? No, he was a man. He was capable of compassion, capable of empathy.
The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch has an interview with Robert Ellis who looked after Saddam for two years while the former dictator was in US custody. In his last years, he watered weeds, members of the plant kingdom that everyone hates. He saved his own food to feed birds. And when Ellis was leaving, he called him "brother". These are not the things we automatically associate with madmen - rather this was a man devoid of the burden of plotting wars, or plotting genocidal campaigns. This was a farm boy from Al-Awja, Tikrit, unsulllied by some of the apocalyptic horsemen who torment the city. Here was a simple man.
But whenever a state executes a man, he's stripped of redeeming features. For if heaven forbid, he's portrayed as a man, it might a bit more difficult to kill him. Such people have to be dehumanised. He has got to be the only person in the world who isn't refered to as Mister. Perhaps it's because he wasn't a military man like Pinochet, but the reasons appear to be long and complicated.
On the night he was executed, a group of us had a debate about capital punishment. I am against it. Not because I believe the worst of humankind should be spared the indignity of state execution, but for our own dignity. We, the judge, jury, and executioner. We are the ones who need to preserve our own nobility by not killing people. What has killing Saddam gained the world? One less mouth to feed maybe, but other than that - nothing. Is it ever possible for capital punishment to be seen as anything loftier than state sanctioned revenge? I think not. When we were growing up, most of our parents told us not to hit back. Turn the other cheek. Revenge is for the Lord. But even one of the mot theocratic governments in the world, the US government, is in favour of the death penalty.
It's 2007, but it might as well be Middle Ages. Firing Squad, Hanging, Lethal Injection, Electric Chair, Guillotine. What's the difference?