11 January 2007: I download and watch the video of Saddam Hussein’s hanging. Supposedly an underground video, tagged with “banned”, it’s hosted by Google, one of the world’s biggest media players.¹
In fairness, Google itself isn’t responsible for the video. The video was uploaded by an anonymous user. Whoever this person is, he or she is Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.²
As at 16:30 AEST, 14,174,493 people have viewed the footage; I think this is quite a small number given that many of these hits will have been revisits. Or is it too many? Of course, many voyeurs will have sourced the footage elsewhere. 14,174,493 is just Google’s share of the audience.
The execution took place in a small, dark room, with much shouting and garbled Arabic speech. Saddam appears not to speak, appears to be resigned to getting it over with. Certainly there is no ceremony, or none by western standards. In the space of 2½ minutes he’s noosed, dropped and cut down; one might almost say it’s an anticlimax.
The camerawork is, if you’ll excuse the pun, terrible. Poor framing, poor focus of attention, too much motion, and the camera looks away at the crucial moments. At first I thought this gave the lie to Time Magazine’s contention that outsourcing of mass media creation to the individual is the current big thing. Then I remembered that media content standards have dropped correspondingly; to many, this is good enough.
On the other hand, as a rule, what isn’t shown on screen is frequently more evocative than what is shown. Ask any decent horror director. Perhaps this shaky, distracted camera work (or phonework) is intentionally gothic; perhaps a po-mo reference to The Blair Witch Project, an arch commentary on the new media.
Yes, yes… I’m supposed to remember that I’m watching, and discussing, the death of a human being. Since the execution, there has been an outcry against the death penalty itself, never mind its recording as entertainment. But I find it hard to place any more value on Saddam’s life or death than he did on the lives and deaths of the more than 300,000 Iraqis purportedly killed during his regime.³
Was it wrong to video-record Saddam’s execution? The recording arguably provides a public service inasmuch as it forestalls claims that his execution was faked. Right or wrong, it makes little difference to Saddam, for whom all things have become equal.
Was it wrong to download a video of Saddam’s execution? It certainly left me feeling bummed out and in need of a hug. And it makes it hard for me to claim the act of recording was in poor taste. But look, I got a short essay out of it; the muse is priceless. Did 14,174,493 others get similar benefit from watching this sorry thing? Did it at least make them all want a hug? Did it make people around the world reach for each other before they too took the last drop?
If so, how much better off is the world for it?
Google supplies a vox pop rating for each of the videos it hosts. After 14,174,493 views, the execution video has been rated 4 out of 5 stars. I wonder what criteria the voters used. How do you rate a video of an execution?
POSTSCRIPT: AUTOPSY VIDEO
My ex-boss tells me now that there’s a video of Saddam’s autopsy floating about. He expects it’ll be a fake. As he says, “Why would they do an autopsy? [In stoopid voice:] ‘Wow, I wonder how this guy died.’”
URL correct at time of writing.
2. Lev Grossman, Time’s Person of the Year: You, Time, New York, December 13 2006. Read online version
3. AP, 61,000 Baghdad residents executed by Saddam: survey, Sydney Morning Herald, December 10 2003. Read online version