By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2006
When ABC broke into its Friday newsmagazine, "20/20," to announce that Saddam Hussein was finally dead, at the end of a rope, in the pre-dawn darkness of Baghdad, it interrupted a report on "viral video."
Viral video is the dizzying Web phenomenon in which news clips, homemade videos, naughty celebrities caught on cellphone cameras, and the best snippets culled from our endless, 500-channel, 24-hour Television Burlesque, are posted, downloaded and e-mailed from Manhattan to Bangalore and back again in the blink of an eye. ABC gathered a few lightweight social commentators to give gravitas to what was really just a shameless excuse to replay footage of horrendous car accidents, Jerry Springer-like brawls and people getting gunned down in Iraq.
And now we bring you news of Saddam Hussein's execution, video to follow. We hope. And it did follow. Americans woke up on the next to last day of a dismal year of chaos, civil war and general mayhem to find, with a few easy clicks of a mouse, what they were assured was "the final chapter" of the Iraqi dictator's sorry life. ABC got lucky to have it all go down while "20/20" was telling us about viral video, because here it was: The first great Shakespearean death scene of the YouTube generation.
Except that when the video arrived, no matter how many times you watched it, the images seemed to be neutral, gray, bizarre. Hussein offered nothing to his enemies, no meltdown or tears or panic. He looked ashen, dazed and exhausted, and he submitted to the placing of the noose with the affectless detachment of someone who has determined to get through an ordeal by checking out emotionally from the whole scene. Although video of his actual death wasn't immediately circulated, it seems Hussein approached his end bravely, so long as one understands that bravery is not a virtue in itself (like loyalty, bravery is only good if it is bravery in service of something good). But it was an awkward scene and everyone involved, including Hussein, seemed to want it over quickly.
It was odd to see him being touched and manipulated, especially as the news networks began showing footage of him from his days in power, in which there always seemed to be a space around him. Hussein's generals and other toadies kept their distance, reinforcing his prestige, and also his volatility. He was a big man, whose eyes were always moving, warily, which made him bristle with aggression even when laughing. But here he was in a small, cramped space, with too many people working to get him into position for the hanging.
His personal space had already been once and forever triumphantly violated with the dissemination of images of a wild-haired and filthy Hussein submitting to medical inspection after his capture. But it was odd to see that space violated again, one last time, especially as the news of the execution flowed seamlessly into the career retrospective and the endless commentary.
People who are important enough to live their lives in the constant glare of the camera don't really have "final chapters," because when it's all over, their images are endlessly reprocessed and remixed into a kind of permanent simultaneity, like the jumble of birth, death, miracles and martyrdom one finds on a complex altarpiece. The idea that Hussein had lived his "final chapter" was an excuse to play the whole drama over again, from beginning to end. And yet no matter how many times one watched it, from the black-and-white footage of a young thug on the rise, to the swaggering, khaki-green era we remember from the first Gulf War, to his years as a prisoner, disheveled at first, then somber in his black suits, no matter how many times the life was reenacted, a sense of finality never emerged.
For the obvious reason: Hussein's legacy is being lived out every day in Iraq and will continue to haunt his people for an indefinite bloody future. For as long as he was alive, Hussein was useful for an important American argument about the war. He was a bad guy; we captured him; he would face justice. This miniature narrative, contained within the broader one of a war gone terribly wrong, is losing its force. And with Hussein dead it will likely become almost entirely inert. Another video clip, easily found on the Web, showed Hussein dead, wrapped in a white cloth, with his face clearly visible. The camera lingered over the image for a strangely long time, as if to say, yes, he's still dead.
Saddam Hussein Is Still Dead is not a rallying cry. But the images of his execution and his body seem to point to a new era in the way images are used politically, what might be called a post-propaganda era. So many images that were supposed to have such profound impact on public perception -- the now infamous "Mission Accomplished" photo op or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's bloody head tastefully framed for the cameras -- have failed to connect with the reality of either public opinion, or the facts on the ground. This image means progress, we're told, but there isn't any progress. This image is a final chapter, but the blood still flows. For a public media campaign to work, at least some of the politically calculated captions placed on images must, in the end, turn out to be true.
The current administration has attempted to construct a classic media argument in support of the war at a time when "the media" are dissolving and re-forming into something new, something in which the images we wish to see are more important than the images we are forced to see. Even before the execution video arrived, television people were publicly clucking about what they would or wouldn't show. It will be tasteful, they assured us. But their efforts at gatekeeping are now almost entirely irrelevant. The public will find exactly as much of the death of Hussein as it wants, and people will watch for as long as it holds any novelty or fascination. Taste is a collective worry, but in this new world of viral videos, you can construct your own war, personally tailored to your personal bloodlust. Saddam Hussein is dead, the video is out there. Enjoy.