Public executions have a way of getting on people's nerves - what with the bouncing heads, and the rifle smoke, and that irritating creak of the rope. I wouldn't bring up such a subject, but the world seems so taken with executions lately. The Pakistanis hand ex-premier Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto 12 days ago. And last week the Iranians gave former Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda a machine-gun send-off for being "a corrupt elment on earth" - a capital offense you'd hate to see adopted universally. Over in Uganda, the hunt for Idi Amin continues apace, and when he is caught, we may bet that the Emperor for Life will see his term come to a dramatic end before an ecstatic mob. He undoubtedly deserves whatever he gets. His personal fate is not what's wrong with this form of justice.
What is wrong - what is really a corrupt element on earth - about public executions is that they are savage and stupid in themselves. The savagery is self-evident. The stupidity seems not to be - even though time and time again histroy presents examples of popular revolutions that never would have erupted had not some fat-brained general decided the one sure way to prove his power was to knock off a political enemy.
And the interesting thing about his strategy is that it shows itself to be stupid quite irrespectively of particular countries, issues, times, and the guilt or innocence of the person executed. Bhutto was an oppressor, a murderer himself; yet now the peasants, who owe him nothing but oppression, weep and mill in the streets. In Iran there was no widespread murmuring of the mob at first. But yesterday even that changed as thousands demonstrated against the Ayatollah Khomeini just as they had against the shah.
The point is that whenever a government, new or old, executes an enemy, it shows itself in its full capacity for fear and revenge. And when the people see, these exercises of power, the inevitably shiver, even when cheering.
Let me give you the case of Ireland:
In Dublin on this day, Easter Monday, 1916, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood rose up against the British, and occupied the General Post Office on O'Connell Street. They hoisted the tricolor flag of green, white and orange; and their leader, Padraic Pearse read aloud a proclamation of independence to a bewildered handful of Dubliners, who answered back with what was described as "a few thin, perfunctory cheers." No one really approved. Other leaders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood saw the insurrection as a colossal tactical blunder. And when the British finally recaptured the post officer (after an incredible six days of being held off), the general popular feeling was contempt and relief.
Except for Pearse, very few of the insurrectionists had any special heroic bearing. Thomas MacDonagh was a middling poet; Tom Clarke, a weaselfaced tobacconist who used to get his kicks by calling his British customers "amadan" (Irish for fool). The least inspiring character was John MacBride, the husband of Maud Gonne, Ireland's patriotic heroine, who was simply a professional solider. W. B. Yeats who had loved Maud Gonne, hated MacBride, not just because MacBride had won Maud, but because he was crude and brutal. "An old bellows full of angry wind," Yeats called him.
So there was no public outcry when the General Post Office was reclaimed, and the insurrectionists were led off to jail. The outcry arose only after the British Courts Martial had the bright idea of shooting the seven signatories of the proclamation, along with eight others. The sight and sound of the firing squads turned public opinion around entirely, and within five years there was an Irish republic. After the event, Yeats wrote the poem, "Easter 1916," in which he showed an Ireland "changed utterly." Even when he came to MacBride, he described him so:
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout .
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart ,
Yet I number him in the song ;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy ;
He, too, has been changed in his turn ,
Transformed utterly ;
A terrible beauty is born .
I can think of but one other example of an execution working so thoroughly against the executioners. That one occurred almost 2,000 years ago last Friday, when a different government proved its power.