Nothing to celebrate in ghastly execution

WASHINGTON -- Although I oppose the death penalty, I toyed for many years with the notion that all executions should be televised. The video of Saddam Hussein's hanging that has popped up on Internet sites has disabused me of that notion. Too many viewers appear to be enjoying it too much.

I found at least one video-sharing Web site that was offering the event as a download in two portable formats. Web-savvy kids can share Mr. Hussein's last moments with each other on the video iPods that Santa brought.


Video originally released to Iraqi television stations shows the rope being looped around Mr. Hussein's neck and stops short of the actual hanging. But a second video, apparently shot with a cell phone camera, includes Mr. Hussein falling through a trapdoor as he was in the middle of praying.

As he waited to be hanged, men in the room chanted the name of militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Mr. Hussein seemed to respond sarcastically by repeating Mr. al-Sadr's name. If anyone, particularly among Mr. Hussein's fellow Sunnis, could feel any sympathy for the mass murderer, the video offers it.


I used to think that the public would be so horrified at the sight of a state-sponsored murder in progress that people would rise up as one to call for an end to the barbaric practice. The buzz generated by Mr. Hussein's video convinces me of quite the opposite.

Today's media-market incentives might encourage executions instead of reducing them. A substantial number of viewers might well race to see if an actual killing was as spine-tingling as the dramatized versions they have seen.

Marketing executives would race to secure exclusive rights and sell advertising for the big events. Court TV might not be enough to handle viewer demand. Someone would spin off a new Capital Punishment Channel. States such as Texas and Florida, where executions have been plentiful, might find a new revenue source by auctioning off TV rights in much the way that the sports franchises do.

Many feared that Mr. Hussein's execution would lead to more violence. But if it did, how would we tell? Iraq has experienced increasing violence with each passing month. Immediately after Mr. Hussein's hanging, more than 70 civilians were killed in a series of car bombs in Shiite neighborhoods, according to news reports. Almost 2,000 civilians were killed in December, according to Iraq's Interior Ministry, nearly three times the number of deaths the ministry reported in January 2006. And at least 112 U.S. soldiers died in December, the deadliest month for American troops in more than two years, pushing the total number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq past 3,000.

Nevertheless, the video of Mr. Hussein's execution sends a warning to other despots that they, too, might be held accountable for their atrocities with swift justice, if and when the international community gets its moral act together. Unfortunately, the video also gives the unsavory impression of a sectarian lynch mob, which is not the form of justice with which Americans should want to be associated.

The Iraqi government says investigations are under way to find out who shot the video and how it was released. It certainly didn't do the regime any favors. It serves to further inflame sectarian conflicts. It exposes an appalling lack of discipline on the part of the guards and officials at the execution. It also makes you wonder whether Mr. Hussein's savage rule might be replaced with something worse.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is