Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Victims believe they will be comforted by watching the deaths of their oppressors

Now it is easier to understand those who thrilled to Al Jazeera broadcasts of videoed beheadings
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The Independent Online

Few on this planet will have missed the noosing of Saddam Hussein, an ignoble end of an ignoble man. Saddam's last moments were captured on camera by Iraqi government propagandists and other cretins using mobile phones. The images were then beamed around the world. You can hear the sounds as well on the internet.

I refused to watch the footage, even though the BBC had sunk that low, but I could hardly avoid the newspapers with more details about the final reckoning, an appalling act in the unending tragic drama of Iraq. At 5am, the condemned man was escorted by American troops who handed him over to the executioners, all masked. Witnesses were flown in by American helicopters (mark that; they couldn't even pretend that this was the will of a truly independent Iraqi court).

The room was cold and dank and it stank. The prisoner, in a black coat, was calm, handed over his hat and Koran. He declined a hood to cover his face. He prayed and as he did so some men, thought to be Shia militants, cursed and mocked him. A couple of them joked. He cursed them back and went on to damn the Americans and Persians, degradation upon degradation crowding the ugly chamber.

The deputy prosecutor tried in vain to bring dignity to the moment. There is no dignity in such moments. Saddam's neck snapped loudly and then it was over. Except it cannot be over. The hanging will bring no respite, that much I know.

So how was it for you then? Were you fascinated, titillated or offended by this spectacle? Millions around the world watched the orgiastic resolution and reached climax as the world's baddest man of the moment was led to the gallows. Do they, two days on, feel relieved and happily spent?

Now, perhaps, it becomes slightly easier to understand the millions who thrilled to Al Jazeera broadcasts of videoed beheadings by vicious terrorists. They got a kick out of watching the ultimate reality TV programme. There were also those for whom the horrible, cruel killings represented retribution for perceived and real western injustices against Muslims. For the diminishing band who still argue the war on Iraq was a noble enterprise, Saddam's killing assumes its own symbolism, an electrifying vindication. And this time it is real, unlike the statue of Saddam with a noose round its neck.

Twenty-first-century global citizens are no better than the raving Romans cheering torn bodies in their coliseums and those toothless hags knitting and enjoying the deadly chop upon chop of the French guillotine. Our human civilisation has sunk so low that capital punishment has become the best show in town. The fact that this time the rope cut down a known tyrant's life makes it and us no better. In a note found among her papers, was this observation by Elizabeth Fry, the Quaker prison reformer: "Does capital punishment tend to the security of the people? By no means. It hardens the hearts of men and makes the loss of life appear light to them..."

This hanging will bring relief for a short while and then many of those who wanted this most will feel pain return with a vengeance. For years the victims and families of the unquiet dead of Saddam's reign of terror have been building up to this day of ultimate judgement in order to release them from the agonies they have too long endured.

Victims of terrible crimes often have this hope and need, to see the perpetrators punished so that they can suffer a little of the affliction they have caused. However, people like Saddam or Fred West are psychopaths with no capacity for suffering. And in thousands of cases, capital punishment provides only brief satisfaction followed by greater desolation as the graves of the executed are filled.

In 1995, the Oklahoma bomb killed 168 people and destroyed hundreds of families. I filmed there in the months that followed the blast and found almost all the grieving relatives wanted to see the convicted mass murderer put to death, with maximum pain.

In the summer of 2001, the bomber, Timothy McVeigh , was put to death. Many of the relatives watched him go, a killer, like Saddam, unrepentant to the end. Later a couple of them contacted me to say their own loss and grief was almost worse after the lethal injection. They had naively imagined they would be able to cut themselves free of the burden and now they knew there is no such final solution.

On Question Time, as the war approached, a Kurdish woman, who said she had been tortured by Saddam's henchmen, attacked me and others on the panel for not supporting Bush and Blair. I doubt very much she will have found peace since the war which has killed 650,000 Iraqis or that she will feel herself adequately placated by this hanging.

I feel no pity for Saddam or any other tyrant brought to proper justice. He should have been made to live and die in a decent prison outside Iraq, shown how power can be exercised with honour and virtue. It can never happen but Bush and Blair too need to be taken before an independent judiciary to account for their lies and rush to an illegal war. Milosevic, Pinochet, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Mao, many others escaped due process and that leaves their victims in unimaginable perpetual torment.

As an easterner brought up in Africa, vengeance is my usual over-emotional response to brutes and their regimes. Retribution is in our ancient bloodstreams. I understand why millions of Shia Iraqis and Kurds oppressed by the Baathists should be dancing in the streets. Remember: an eye for an eye was codified into harsh law by the Babylonian king Hammurabi way back, around 1740 BC, later to be incorporated into harsh Old Testament dictums.

Mahatma Gandhi, whose philosophy of non-violence and peace infuriated the vindictive who assassinated him, always had a crucifix on his wall, a reminder that even when the Romans were tearing his flesh and life away, Jesus sought not revenge but forgiveness. Too many of his Christian followers have abandoned the idea of mercy and redemption, two graces to save the world from itself. The course of an intolerable historical legacy is only laid to rest when there is no surrender to base revenge. Remind yourself of Bishop Tutu and his Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Imagine the next scenes of carnage in Iraq as the civil war spreads. Saddam is rendered a martyr and hero unvanquished even at the point of dropping into the black hole. Even those who support the death penalty have expressed their admiration of the man. His many enemies will not rest here. Others will be hanged, more poison will fill the air and hearts. Seasons without light will follow one after another. The winds will carry the anguish here too, as in recent years.

We helped to rip up Iraq; that Iraq has made Britain barbaric. Saddam has escaped the horrors in the wings. Oh lucky man.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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