Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Death on camera

Wednesday January 3, 2007
The Guardian

"It is curious, but till that moment I had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man," wrote George Orwell after witnessing a hanging. Proximity to death, which shocked him as a police officer in pre-war Burma, has been brought to the world in a different form at the start of 2007 through the images and sounds surrounding Saddam Hussein's execution, recorded on a camera phone and released on the internet. John Prescott, who yesterday described the manner of the dictator's death as "quite deplorable" in an interview with the BBC, would not have been so outspoken had coverage been restricted to the official, edited and silent film.

Even in the still form used by some newspapers, including this one, after consideration, the second film has confronted the world not just with the brutish circumstances of Saddam's death but the wider reality of present-day Iraq. Mr Prescott's off-the-cuff response to it yesterday was authentic, just as Margaret Beckett's initial statement that Saddam had been "held to account" (which Downing Street said came on behalf of the whole government) was inadequate. The new film of events at dawn inside the former offices of Iraq's military security service has produced a more realistic understanding. The boundary between justice, however unpleasant, delivered by a responsible, sovereign government, and sectarian mob violence, was crossed in an explicit form.

The way in which the former Iraqi ruler died may not alter the underlying morality of his execution, an act which Britain should have opposed more firmly than it did and which was not universally supported even inside the Iraqi government, as President Jalal Talabani's objections made clear. But the manner of Saddam's death, ridden with chaos and malice, has made the act much more divisive and dangerous. It was justice delivered in its crudest form, by hooded men taunting Saddam with Shia slogans, the distillation of a fractured and lawless country. The possibility that the pictures were recorded by a senior Iraqi official, as Saddam's prosecutor Munkith al-Faroon suggested yesterday, underlines the decayed state of what passes for central authority in the country.

The British government, like President Bush, still fails to acknowledge this reality, preferring Saddam's trial and sentence to be seen as a clinical, judicial process carried out by forces over which they have no control. Yesterday Mr Prescott appeared to object less to the manner of Saddam's death than its public exposure when he said that "to get this kind of recorded messages coming out is totally unacceptable". He might have preferred the deed to take place behind closed doors, but even without the film the guards would still have jeered and Iraqi constitutional restrictions, such as they are, would have been pushed to the limit. So would Sunni tolerance. Their anger will be added to by Kurdish distress at being cheated of their time in court. The execution was hurried through after a trail for anti-Shia crimes but before the gassing of Kurds had even reached trial.

The pictures are shocking because they serve as a graphic conclusion to the terrible story of the rise and fall of Saddam, a story in which this country has played a part. For all the talk of Iraqi sovereignty, the former leader was tried by a special tribunal shaped by western forces, and was kept by the US until the final hours before his hanging. His body was flown to Tikrit on a US helicopter and US embarrassment over the bungling of his death has put pressure on the Iraqi government to investigate. The mayhem revealed in the new film, like the wider mayhem across most of Iraq, is in part mayhem that we have created. Like the image of Saddam's statue being toppled in 2003, and pictures of torture from Abu Ghraib prison, the illicit pictures of his death will come to define the conflict, evidence of just how disastrous the whole project has proved.

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