Dying well used to be a popular topic for discussion and a trope for art. Paintings of just men dying peacefully in bed and distraught debauched sinners mad at their final moment were exempla for everyone. Live well, die well, was the message. As you sow, so shall you reap. We’ll read in your end image your whole story. Accordingly, Saddam Hussein’s death disappointed many. He seemed composed and dignified, contemptuous of his angry taunting executioners. Not a satisfying picture for those who wanted to make him thoroughly monstrous, nor quite comforting either to those who think vengeance effects justice.
The US had tried to make him look bad when he was captured, showing gloved captors probing his wild hair and mouth. For those who understood the biblical myths undergirding the US invasion, this echoed the bestialized Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel, humbled by the almighty Hebrew god, a presage of how Babylon falls to Jerusalem in Revelation. But Saddam Hussein, once the grinning dealmaker with Donald Rumsfeld, managed his own image. The gun-brandisher, pseudo-Saladin gave way to the aggrieved lawyer and occasional preacher. At his end he reproached the taunting executioners that they failed to act like men. He looked better than the executers of ‘justice,’ who seemed brutal and bloodthirsty. Saddam rehabilitated his image many said bitterly. Which goes to show a certain volatility of human opinion. A few days later tapes of Saddam speaking of his calculated chemical poisoning surfaced, no doubt to shift the wind of opinion by reasserting the monster. Which goes to show not only what Krishna remarked-that no man is entirely good and no man is entirely evil-but that we’re buffeted by sham morality plays and images night to morn.
On 15 January 2007, Saddam’s co-defendants were also hanged. The reports said they were in orange jumpsuits and black hoods and they were trembling. The US had insisted their executions be proper, unlike Saddam’s. Executioners and witnesses had to sign statements promising good behavior. But Saddam’s half-brother Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti got decapitated by the hanging. The image was macabre and was immediately guarded by the government which says it may not be publically shown. NYTimes reporter John Burns, with a select group, viewed the videotape and attested it showed the condemned fall and have his head snap off. Burns theorized that the eight-foot drop calculation was too long, causing the mishap. Some claimed the decapitation was an act of God, others saw the viciousness or ineptness of the government. Whatever the case, al-Tikriti didn’t die well image-wise and it reflected badly on the executioners. Burns also noted that both condemned were “distinctly frightened.” He commented that Saddam’s admired fearlessness at his death was no doubt related to his lack of conscience. Even top reporters interpret deaths and press for telling stories. Coverage paid little attention to the death prayers uttered by the condemned. If you consent to killing the wicked you have to keep asserting their wickedness over your own.
St. Paul remarked that it was hard to preach Christ crucified because a hero who dies a criminal death is not attractive. He looks like a criminal even though he may be innocent and the executioners guilty. And he looks defeated and weak. He doesn’t struggle or fight death, doesn’t die like a warrior. Early Byzantine Christians pictured Christ on the cross only in vestments of glory-moving to the real end of the story which was Christ’s justifying resurrection, the triumph of his life over death. Paul argued that this was the story to preach-not the death by crucifixion. That was, he said. to the Jews a stumbling block, and to the Gentiles a scandal.
Christ’s death and Socrates’ are both frequently cited as examples of injustice. History has regarded them as moral heros and their executions as wrongful. Both appealed to an afterlife for vindication. Both are seen as dying well. Christ surrenders to man’s brutality and reveals and forgives it. Socrates accepts death’s inevitability and drinks the poison himself.
A lot depends on what you think death means. It’s the last act you play in your earthly drama. Socrates argued that the conventional idea of ‘swan song’ was wrong. People think the swan intensely mourns his last breath, singing as it parts from sweet life, he said. But on the contrary, he continued, the swan is Apollo’s bird and sings with joy at the prospect of immortality. The death song is beautiful, but the meaning is arguable in the case of the swan.
Commentators on the Iraqi condemned are not so theoretical. Most prefer the condemned be execrable in their ends or they mourn the executioners’ clumsiness. Some condemn the death penalty itself, seeing in its rationale the same commitment to violence which defined the wicked.
It is not just paradoxical that these images of dying look bad. They could look good only abstractly-spun out of the images into fantasies of justice and evil. Hiding the human face is a revealing technique in torture and in execution. Saddam was smart to refuse the hood. He faced his executioners and death. President Bush who sought and applauded Saddam’s execution as justice said he didn’t watch the whole thing, didn’t want to. He did see the internet video he said but stopped watching before the last moments. Was he signaling sensitivity to the death moment, the ugliness of bulging eyes and twisted neck, or the specific brutality of real hanging? Or was it faintheartedness, or not wanting to see Saddam look human in death. The brutal dictator whose pistol Bush displays as a war trophy in the Oval Office, whose callous cruelties he condemned, who bluffed him into war, looked good in his end and the President famously doesn’t like contradictions of his evaluations.
Saddam’s dying well strikes to the deeper issue of acts and ends and agency. The President who relentlessly became ‘a war president’ embraced killing and destruction as a solution to ‘evil.’ His nemesis, Saddam Hussein, embraced killing and destruction for political power. What ends justify what means?
It is hard to make a man you kill look evil. He looks vulnerable. You look evil. Because you kill. And you don’t wipe out ‘bad’ killing with ‘good’ killing, you echo it. Which the President and we choose not to see.
DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: email@example.com