Robert Fisk: In the Colosseum, thoughts turn to death

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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.

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