The other night I caught a fragment of the cartoon “Family Guy”, which as far as I can tell is about a guy who works for the CIA and whose family has a pet alien which they have to hide from everyone. In this particular episode, the family has been transferred to Saudi Arabia, where they have a series of adventures which leads to them all being sentenced to execution. Just as the Saudis are going to start pelting them with stones, someone’s cell phone goes off and the execution is postponed while the Saudis all dig out their cell phones to see whose it is. Boy did they get that one right. I guess the Arabs just can’t go to an execution without their cellphones.
Now the Iraqis have arrested two guards and their supervisor for having cellphones at Saddam’s execution. Never mind that witnesses saw two big-shot governmnet officials recording the doings with their cellphones. Oh, and there were outside agitators who gained entrance to the execution. That’s where all the hubbub came from. Yeah, right. Round up the usual suspects.
The most sensible thing was said by the military spokeman:
Caldwell said no Americans were present for the hanging and that the tumultuous execution would have gone differently had the Americans been in charge.
Sounds a bit pompous, like we know the right way to do it. But if you read the statement again, well, they did it their way. Characteristically it was the Brits who broke the story first on BBC News (after the video had already aired on al-Jazeera) and made the biggest fuss. The stuffy, proper, stiff upper lip Brits. And the Americans, well, we like things to have a little decorum, especially something like an execution, so we can think profound thoughts and make moral computations.
But the Arabs? They just like to run right out and embrace life. None of our sterile, impersonal, push-button culture for them. No, the Arabs engage. While Americans get sticky about little details like waterboarding, Saddam’s regime engaged in drilling through people bones with hand drills, and dissolving them in bathtubs with acid. Well, okay, maybe that’s not a real good example. How about their tea rituals? The Arabs are hospitable and never miss a chance to socialize. We have efficiency. They have hiya–life.
So when Saddam went to his death, did they hang back politely, waiting for someone else to breathe for them. No, they engaged. Saddam had been a bitter enemy and was about to be killed, but he wasn’t about to become an unperson. They didn’t ignore him, they engaged him on the level they knew about, the level of two peoples that have had much bitterness between them. “Saddam you destroyed us”, one said. How heartfelt. “No, I save you from your enemies”, was the response. Saddam defending his legacy. How?, you have to think. But it was an automatic reaction. And the “taunting” had a bantering character about it–if someone had not been about to die, it would have had a comic book quality. And when the exchange started to get out of hand, Saddam himself, still larger than life, asked “is that how men act?”, and someone else with a voice of authority stopped it.
So what if someone had a cellphone and someone else chanted Moktadr and someone else expressed sectarian bitterness. So what. That’s Iraq. The Iraqi government would do better not waste their time arresting little guards who make awkward things public. Those issues–sectarian bitterness, the militias’ infiltration of the military–need to come out into the sunlight now, and have a nice public debate.
No they didn’t have a polite, antiseptic American execution or a detached, stuffy British one. They had a rambunctious, heartfelt Arab one. They were in the moment. They engaged. They were alive. And Saddam, in the last few moments of his life, was fully alive and engaged, too, as an Arab ought to be.
No, the Iraqis did not live up to western expectations of what a lovely execution should be like. They did it all in their own unique way, making their own unique heartfelt history.