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December 31, 2006

Hussein Hanging Video: A Great Day for Democracy?

As I noted last month, I'm working on an article about televising McVeigh's execution: Why Is Photographing an Execution A Crime? Once and Future Issues Raised by the Suit to Webcast McVeigh's Execution. So, it's interesting to come back from eight hours on the road to see Hussein has not only been executed, but there's video footage of it. Although there's a federal law that prevents making a photographic recording of executions in the U.S., there's nothing formal that prohibits media from showing Saddam 'Butcher of Baghdad' Hussein's execution. But the U.S. media thinks it's inappropriate to do so.

Why?

I'm not advocating it, but curious to explore the issue. One of the departure points for the piece on McVeigh's almost televised execution is a scene from the South Park movie  (South Park - Bigger, Longer & Uncut). They're televising the executions of the Canadians and announce 'This is a great day for Democracy.'

Isn't that basically the situation with both McVeigh and Hussein. McVeigh killed 186 in an act of terrorism, and many claimed we have a death penalty for exactly this type of crime. No questions of guilt, no thorny racial issues and a chance for the fervently pro-death penalty President Bush to show the skeptical world the face of American executions: putting a terrorist and mass murderer to sleep with the prick of a needle. (Ok, there's some debate about that...) The death penalty doesn't get any more legitimate than that, but we can't pull the curtain and show the U.S. the workings of policy done in their name. (Why is it we have COPS and Court TV, but no punishment TV?)

Hussein is another mass murderer, and President Bush said his execution "is an important milestone on Iraq's course to becoming a democracy that can govern, sustain and defend itself, and be an ally in the War on Terror." But NBC talked about a "wide shot" of the hanging, or even an image from afterwards; "CBS will not show it, no matter what” according to the NY Times. ABC talked about "taste and propriety," which begs the question of why toppling his statue was a huge photo-op, but this milestone is inappropriate? Indeed, the U.S. Army Signal Corp and War Dept shot footage of Nazis at the moment of their hanging, but in this golden era of telecommunications the US allows the hanging to only be recorded with a cell phone?

Again, I'm not advocating the video be run on prime-time with highlights repeated every ten minutes like so many other lesser events. But there seems to be some tension here between our ideas about civilization, democracy and executions. If it's a great day for democracy, then why is it inappropriate television - and given what passes for 'appropriate' on television, saying something is too too tasteless to show is an incredibly strong statement.

 

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Paul

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