I watched “Perfume” yesterday. I finally got round to reading the book last year and was knocked out by it – the sheer visceral appeal of some of those long descriptive passages is remarkable. I found myself so wrapped up in some of the descriptions, that you almost forget that the author is describing the work of a serial-killer. Inevitably, the film suffers in direct comparison with the book, but I thought they made a very brave stab at it…. It’s definitely worth going to see, anyway (even if it is about thirty minutes too long).
One of the things that really stayed with me though is something that is sadly topical: Grenouille, the “hero” of the film is at one point sentenced to death. Not just any death, mind you, but a particularly brutal one. He is sentenced to be tied to a wooden cross and to have all of his major bones broken by nine successive blows from an iron bar before being allowed to die. When the sentence is read out in front of a baying mob, they all howl their delight.
This all brought to mind the death of Saddam Hussein. This is the twenty-first century, and the machinery of judicial killing may now be more efficient, but is it really all that much more humane? I read an article at the weekend that explained in great detail the art that goes into a good hanging. The key, apparently, is to make sure that the rope is the right length to snap the spinal cord and bring about a “quick” death. Too short and the victim will be strangled agonisingly; too long and they will be decapitated. There’s also a little trick that they do with the position of the knot of the noose – if this is placed to one side underneath the jaw, then it will help to force the vertebrae of the neck apart and break the victim’s neck. In ideal circumstances, apparently “most” brain activity stops after a couple minutes. Saddam was allowed to hang on the end of his rope for about 10 minutes before he was cut down.
The Conservative party recently released a list of the “Twelve great people who shaped our nation”. Included in this list was Henry II, king of England 1154-1189. He was included because of his introduction of “Common Law”, which saw trial by jury beginning to replace practices like trial by ordeal (carrying a red-hot iron for ten yards, picking a stone out of boiling water - that kind of thing. If your hands were still burned and infected three days later, then you were guilty. The idea being that God healed the wounds of the innocent)
Trial by jury is, of course, still the foundation of our legal system… and is now also the foundation of the legal system in the newly democratic Iraq. Saddam himself was probably one of the first defendants to be put through this new system (his trial and inevitable conviction presumably doing nothing to shake his lifelong belief that it is an altogether unsatisfactory system all round).
So, Saddam was sentenced to death, his appeal was rejected and he was hanged.
Are we supposed to applaud that he wasn’t tied to a cross and broken by an iron bar first? Should we rejoice that he died a “clean” death and wasn’t strangled or decapitated? It’s all relative, after all… he’s still dead as part of a state sanctioned murder.
We can hide behind the niceties of his “fair” trial and declare that he surely deserved to die for his many crimes, but for all our fancy legal ways, we still decided to kill him, didn't we? Does the fact that we have used different means justify coming to the same conclusions? Does that really make us any better than Saddam himself? Margaret Beckett may try and make herself and her government feel a bit better by assuring us that although Saddam had been “held to account” for his crimes in Iraq, “Britain does not support the use of the death penalty, in Iraq or anywhere else”. Yeah, that’s right Margaret; the British government had no part at all to play in Saddam’s death. Nothing to do with us at all. Whatever you say (although I notice that you waited until he was dead before saying as much, which was brave of you. Appeals for clemency aren't really much use once the sentence has been carried out).
I sometimes wonder how we dare to call ourselves civilised at all.