The Power Effects of Public Executions
The enormous and still gathering backlash against the manner of Saddam Hussein's execution last month recalls Michel Foucault's famous analysis of the power effects of public executions and the reason for the shift away from public use of the death penalty across most of Europe and its satellite socities in the course of the 19th century. Saddam's execution was not public in the conventional sense, having taken place inside a prison rather than in a public square. But the large number of witnesses (as well as their boisterous behavior), and the cell phone video tape have effectively transformed the event into a kind of post-modern public execution (the execution of Tim McVeigh shared some features of this).
In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. by Alan Sheridan (pp. 55-66), Foucault observes that public exections had very real political consequences for regimes that lacked the mechanisms of modern political publicity. By calling the public together to witness a spectacle of physical dominaiton and pain, the authorities produced an experience of the truth of their own power that could be expected to linger long in the memories of witnesses and be shared in their narratives. At the same time, however, they created dangerous possibilities of inversion, including moments of popular uprising.
In these executions, which ought to show only the terrorizing power of the prince, there was a whole aspect of the carnival, in which rules were inverted, authority mocked and criminals transformed into heros. The shame was turned round; the courage, like the tears and the cries of the condemned , caused offence only to the law. (61)While Saddam's execution did not result in an immediate protest by the crowd who witnessed it (indeed their enthusiasm for the execution is one of the features that marred the event from a ritual perspective), but did show case Saddam and the law condemning him in almost precisely the inversion Foucault described.