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

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ice skating in George Square, Glasgow  

How many Christmas cards have you sent this year?

Simon Kelner
 

Al-Sweady Inquiry: An exercise in greed that blights the lives of brave soldiers

Richard Kemp
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum