Robert Fisk: In the Colosseum, thoughts turn to death

Share

At midnight on Thursday, I lay on my back in the Colosseum and looked at a pageant of stars above Rome. Where the lions tore into gladiators, and only a few metres from the cross marking the place of Saint Paul's crucifixion – "martyrdom", of course, has become an uneasy word in this age of the suicide bomber – I could only reflect on how a centre of cruelty could become one of the greatest tourist attractions of our time. An Italian television station had asked me to talk about capital punishment in the Middle East for a series on American executions and death row prisoners. Two generators had melted down in an attempt to flood the ancient arena with light. Hence, the moment of reflection.

Readers with serious money may also like to know that it costs £75,000 to hire the Colosseum for 24 hours, a cool £10,500 just for our little night under the stars. Yet who could not think of capital punishment in the Colosseum?

Watching the first episode of the Italian television series – which recounted the visits of an Italian man and woman to two Americans who had spent years on death row in Texas – I was struck by how both prisoners, who may or may not have remembered amid their drug-induced comas whether or not they murdered anyone, had clearly "reformed". Both deeply regretted their crimes, both prayed that one day they could return to live good lives, to care for their children, to go shopping, walk the dog. In other words, they were no longer the criminals they were when they were sentenced.

Given their predicament, I guess anyone would reform. But I suspect that guilt or innocence is not what the death sentence is about. My Dad was perfectly aware that the young Australian soldier he was ordered to execute in the First World War had killed a British military policeman in Paris, but the Australian promised to live "an upright and straightforward life" if pardoned. My father refused to kill the Australian. Someone else shot him instead. Capital punishment, for those who believe in it, is almost a passion. I rather think it is close to an addiction, something – like smoking or alcohol – which can be cured only by total abstinence. And no excuses for secret Japanese executions or lethal injections in Texas or head-chopping outside Saudi Arabian mosques. But how do you reach this stage when humanity is so obsessed with death in so barbaric a form?

Whenever the Iranians string up drug-dealers or rapists – and who knows their guilt or innocence – the cranes which hoist these unfortunates into the sky like dead thrushes are always surrounded by thousands of men and women, often chanting "God is Great". They did this even when a young woman was hanged.

Surely some of these people are against such terrible punishment. But there is, it seems, something primal in our desire for judicial killings. George Bernard Shaw once wrote that if Christians were thrown to the lions in the Royal Albert Hall, there would be a packed house every night. I'm sure he was right. Did not those thousands of Romans pack this very same, sinister Colosseum in which I was lying to watch just such carnage? Was not Saddam Hussein's execution part of our own attempt to distract the Iraqis with bread and circuses, the shrieking executioners on the mobile phone video the Baghdad equivalent of the gladiators putting their enemies to the sword? Nor, let us remember, is execution only the prerogative of states and presidents. The IRA practised capital punishment. The Taliban practises execution and so does al-Qa'ida. Osama bin Laden – and I heard this from him in person – believes in the "Islamic" punishment of head chopping.

I remember the crowds who lynched three Palestinian collaborators in Hebron in 2001, their near-naked bodies later swinging from electric pylons while small children threw stones at their torsos, the thousands who cheered when their carcasses were tossed with a roar of laughter into a garbage truck. I was so appalled that I could not write in my notebook and instead drew pictures of this obscenity. They are still in the pages of my notebook today, hanging upside down like Saint Paul, legs askew above their heads, their bodies punctured by cigarette burns.

The leading antagonists in the preposterous "war on terror" which we are all supposed to be fighting – Messrs Bush and bin Laden – are always talking about death and sacrifice although, in his latest videotape, the latter showed a touching faith in American democracy when he claimed the American people had voted for Bush's first presidency.

For bin Laden, 11 September 2001 was "punishment" for America's bloodshed in the Muslim world; indeed, more and more attacks by both guerrillas and orthodox soldiers are turning into revenge operations. Was not the first siege of Fallujah revenge for the killing and desecration of the bodies of American mercenaries? Wasn't Abu Ghraib part of "our" revenge for 11 September and for our failures in Iraq?

Many of the suicide attacks in the Middle East – in "Palestine", in Afghanistan, in Iraq – are specifically named after "martyrs" killed in previous operations. Al-Qa'ida in Iraq stated quite explicitly that it had "executed" US troops in retaliation for the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl south of Baghdad.

Yet I fear the real problem goes beyond the individual act of killing, judicial or otherwise. In a weird, frightening way, we believe in violent death. We regard it as a policy option, as much to do with self-preservation on a national scale as punishment for named and individual wrongdoers. We believe in war. For what is aggression – the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example – except capital punishment on a mass scale? We "civilised" nations – like the dark armies we believe we are fighting – are convinced that the infliction of death on an awesome scale can be morally justified.

And that's the problem, I'm afraid. When we go to war, we are all putting on hoods and pulling the hangman's lever. And as long as we send our armies on the rampage – whatever the justification – we will go on stringing up and shooting and chopping off the heads of our "criminals" and "murderers" with the same enthusiasm as the Romans cheered on the men of blood in the Colosseum 2,000 years ago.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Women are working in some of the lowest-paid sectors such as cleaning, catering and caring  

Women's wages have gone backwards. Labour would give women the pay they deserve

Gloria de Piero
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?