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Making a Spectacle of Ourselves
July 26, 2003
By The Plaid Adder

When I heard that our army had assassinated Uday and Qusai Hussein, I found myself unable to muster much outrage. After all, so many entirely innocent people have been killed by us throughout this war that the deaths of these particular not-so-innocent people seemed like the least of the crimes that will be laid at our door when we all come up for our final judgment. Then I started seeing the headlines about Rumsfeld's decision to publish photos of their dead bodies, in order to convince the "once-frightened Iraqi people" that the two of them were really dead.

The "once-frightened" Iraqi people?

Yes, I'm sure they will all sleep easier in their beds tonight knowing that their country is being occupied by barbarians who are not only quite comfortable with assassination, but happy to proudly display the gruesome evidence of their kills to the world at large.

In the interests of time, I will skip over the part where I bring up Bush's insistence that the Iraqi government and world media follow the Geneva Convention and not display photos or video of our captured, brutalized, and executed soldiers, and point out how hypocrisy has become such an integral element of this government's modus operandi that people don't even notice it any more. Instead, how about we talk about why our government is really publishing those photos.

First of all, let us dispense with the idea that the sole and only motivation of publishing these photos is to convince the "once-frightened Iraqi people" that the two of them are really most sincerely dead. If that's true, then why are these photos and videotapes also being shown ad nauseam (literally) in the U.S. media? Anyway, if reports from Baghdad are any indication, the average Iraqi appears to view these photos in the same light in which they were used to looking upon the pronouncements of their old friend the Information Minister. Since they are used to disbelieving their own government, why should they put any more stock in a 'government' of alien invaders? No, there's something else going on here, and it doesn't really take much to figure out what it is.

For reasons not interesting to anyone here, I was recently forced to re-read the opening half of Michel Foucault's classic Discipline and Punish. Foucault, alas, is long dead, and therefore not around to marvel at the return of something that he appears to have thought disappeared from the Western world for good after the eighteenth century: execution as a public spectacle. As history buffs will recall, people all over Europe used to attend executions regularly as a form of entertainment; in France, at least according to Foucault, these executions were often preceded by public torture of a fairly gruesome kind. As he reads it, the point of the public execution was not simply retribution or deterrence; the execution functioned as a demonstration and confirmation of the state's power not only over the bodies of its subjects, but over justice and the truth itself. It was through the spectacle of the execution that the condemned man "proved" that he really was guilty, that the state really had determined the truth about his crimes, and that his death really was just. The display of the executed criminal's body proved not only that the state can kill whoever it identifies, but that it controls the definition and production of truth and justice.

What was it Bush said about the deaths of Uday and Qusai Hussein? That their lives had "ended in justice"? And wasn't the publication of these photographs supposed to be just one more illustration of the "American justice" that we're bringing to Iraq?

But of course the "justice" that's on display in the public execution is not what we normally consider justice. Foucault's explication of the seventeenth-century French criminal code stresses the fact that it fails almost every test we normally use to determine whether such a system is fair and impartial: the process was totally opaque, almost any amount of information (including the nature of the charges against him) could be concealed from the defendant, the prosecution was to a large extent allowed to define the rules of the game, and it was pretty much impossible for the accused to mount an effective defense. Since, during the actual trial, the deck was clearly stacked in favor of the prosecution, it became all the more important to "prove" that the result was actually just by publicly transforming the victim into a penitent criminal and displaying his death to all and sundry.

Modernity is supposed to have rendered this process obsolete; now that the injustices of state power are better-camouflaged, punishment has also moved out of sight, and been refined into ever more "civilized" systems which produce the same results but do it through more sophisticated methods.

Until now.

The Bush administration kissed modernity goodbye the moment it set out on this war of conquest. Bush may or may not have known what he was doing when he called the war against terrorism a "crusade," but subsequent events have proved him right. We are back in ye olde tymes now: our wars are being fought by professional mercenaries (Mother Jones has a great article on how the military is farming a lot of the business of war out to private contractors); our troops are heavily dependent on armor; looting, pillaging, fire and the sword are all the rage, and there is nothing considered too barbaric or demeaning to be done to a conquered enemy. So why not? Take out the king, kill the whole royal family, and then put the heads of the two princes on spikes in the town square, just to prove that the line is dead.

What we've just done amounts more or less to the same thing; but of course the great advantage of the photos is that they are reproducible, something that cannot be said of a head on a pike. We are trying to produce truth, justice and power not just for the "once-frightened Iraqi people," but for the newly-disgruntled American people, and for the court of world opinion. The fact that almost everyone who looks at these pictures, at least outside of America, is going to turn away in disgust is something that the crew in charge is willing to put up with. Disgusting or not, these pictures are our proof that we rule in Iraq now; that justice is what we say it is, and that we make the truth there.

So. The "once-frightened Iraqi people" can stop being afraid of the Hussein family, and start being afraid of the Bush family. That's what those photos really mean. Well, that, and, you know, the fact that human life and human dignity have been so devalued by this administration that the bottom has now fallen right out of the market. But of course, we knew that already.

The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same can be found at the Adder's Lair at

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