Death on Live TV

Israel executes people all the time, without trial, on television, which usually has nothing to say about it. These are simply not called 'executions,' but 'targeted killings.'

Israel television, and Israel in general, are not the most appropriate places in the world in which to debate the ostensibly moral issue of whether the death sentence carried out on Saddam Hussein was justified - and whether it was appropriate to humiliate him with needless provocation moments before the noose was tightened around his neck. Israel is the last place to debate those questions because the discussion is bound to be hypocritical and self-righteous. Israel executes people all the time, without trial, on television, which usually has nothing to say about it. These are simply not called "executions," but "targeted killings" - from the air, or by some remote-controlled smart bomb - of people whom Israel wants dead: Hamas or Islamic Jihad operatives, sometimes people who were mistakenly identified as activists of those organizations, or completely innocent people who happened to pass by the killing ground by chance.

Therefore, to roll one's eyes heavenward and say, as did MK Michael Eitan on "Politika" (Channel 1, Tuesday, 21.40), that we ought to repudiate the death sentence for terrorists because "for us, human life has value" is either naive or disingenuous. De facto, the death sentence for terrorists has existed here for years, and it is more unjust, barbaric and arbitrary than the hanging of Saddam Hussein, who, after all, was tried and sentenced by due process.

There was something tainted about inviting Moshe Feiglin onto the "Politika" program. Feiglin, known as the head of the "Jewish leadership" faction in the Likud party, is an ultra-right-winger with a cold countenance that betrays no compassion. I am sure that moderator Oded Shahar would not invite him home, and perhaps not even out for a cup of coffee. But he thought it was okay to invite Feiglin into our homes, since it would apparently make "Politika" more "popular" if Feiglin appeared and declared in the metallic tone of an apathetic government clerk that we have to kill terrorists, so that the country will at last have its principles of justice restored to it.

Regarding Saddam's execution, Feiglin said that it was "a bright spark that shows that there is justice in the world." Woe to a world that needs to watch pornographic scenes of death in real time in order to bolster its sense of justice. And heaven help the program editor who needs stimuli like the head of Likud's "Jewish leadership" faction. To tell the truth, if I were invited to the "Politika" studio and knew that Feiglin was going to be there, I wouldn't go. Just as I wouldn't go if I knew that Jean-Marie Le Pen was going to be there, or some Jewish Kahanist.

Obviously there were many people around the world who watched Saddam's execution, and said to themselves: "Poor guy. He was a good man." Again, it's the fault of television that nobody remembers who Saddam really was, and all the murders for which he was responsible. It is the role of television to provide impressive pictures. They have to be sufficiently impressive to erase the impression made by previous impressive pictures. In order to convince the public of the necessity of Saddam's execution, there was a whole week of television reminders of his massacres of Kurdish colonies, pictures of enormous, almost endless, cemeteries, and of the victims of his chemical bombing of Halabja. But what is the power of old pictures in comparison with the perverse power of the fresh viewing of death on live television?

Not so long ago, the pleasure of watching executions in stadiums was considered a kind of pastime of primitive countries like Afghanistan in the days of the Taliban; now the execution of Saddam Hussein proves the entertainment potential of such ceremonies for the so-called enlightened world as well.

Here in Israel, in the familiar spirit of good-fellowship, the ceremony of the execution immediately became the hot joke of the satirical shows, but also featured on the news, like Sunday's "Mabat" (Channel 1). The piece focused on stands in Ramat Gan selling Iraqi food. The owners were asked if Saddam should have been hanged or not. While they stirred the soup and dredged up chunks from within, they dished out their own folksy opinions - ostensibly a reflection of the nation's desire for fair revenge, or at least of the desire of the Iraqi community in Israel to see that latter-day Haman die.

To hear a serious discussion of the execution, and the way it was carried out, one had to wander, as usual, to the foreign channels. Britain's Sky News, for example, carried a furious argument over it on Martin Stanford's news magazine program (Tuesday, 22.00). The conservative journalist Jon Gaunt, who justified the sentence passed on Saddam, was countered by human-rights activist Peter Tatchell. The latter argued that not only was the hanging a barbarous act, but that those who sentenced Saddam to death were not much better than he. Many of the Iraqi leadership today, Tatchell explained, are leaders of murder squads sent to eliminate political and religious rivals, women dressed too immodestly for their taste, homosexuals, or even anyone listening to music considered inappropriate by Islamic standards.

In short: Tell me what the clip of Saddam's execution sparked in you, and I'll tell you who you are. But to be honest, we should call that spark by its real name: blood lust.