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Hanging Saddam is an ironic step backwards
Scripps Howard News Service


November 13, 2006

Saddam is sentenced to hang, and few are more deserving of that fate. The case is problematic, though. During the course of the trial, three of Saddam's lawyers were assassinated, the judge had to be replaced, and tiresome polemical tirades of various kinds were permitted.

Furthermore, while the trial proceeded, Iraq was coming apart at the seams. The authority of the judiciary was undermined in the minds of many Iraqis by the questionable legitimacy of the government. In the background was the Bush administration, which has forcefully and publicly contended that Saddam is guilty. It had an obvious stake in the outcome of his trial, which happened to conclude just a few days before our election.

Ultimately, the verdict was correct and just, but the trial was a mess. And real justice should always have the appearance of careful deliberation and impartiality. This one just doesn't pass the smell test.

Saddam Hanging

Saddam Hanging
Artist Gary McCoy, Cagle Cartoons
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Cagle Cartoons Inc.

Then there's the hanging itself. Most of us probably acquired our perception of hanging from watching western movies, in which cowboys sometimes drop from a makeshift wooden gallows to a sudden stop at the end of a long rope. Other times they're pulled easily from a saddle by a rope as a horse is whipped from between their legs. In both cases, death requires a few seconds of involuntary twitching, often depicted on the screen just from the knees down to the spurs.

But a real hanging is quite different. Many of the hangings that occurred throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th were performed with the "short drop," that is, criminals were suspended by a noose around the neck after the wagon they were standing in was driven from beneath them. Death was by asphyxiation and might take a half-hour or more. Faces turned blue, eyes popped from their sockets, and tongues protruded. Victims often defecated and urinated. Their extended writhing at the end of a rope must have been a sobering lesson for the public, but their agony is horrible to consider.

In an effort to make hanging more humane, the "long drop" was devised. A table of weights and distances was developed for executioners: if you weighed 150 pounds, for example, you would be dropped 6-foot-8 in order to apply just enough pressure to snap your neck cleanly and provide for a rapid death. In some cases criminals wore harnesses to compress the backbone and concentrate the "snapping" effect at the neck rather than along the length of the spinal column. Nevertheless, miscalculations were common. If the drop was too short, the victim suffocated slowly; too long and the head would snap completely off, which probably provides a quick death but is extremely gruesome for the spectators.

We experimented with the electric chair and the gas chamber, but eventually all Western nations abolished capital punishment, except for the United States. In some states you can still be hanged or shot but in general lethal injection is available. The history of execution, from burning at the stake to hanging to lethal injection to abolition, can be read as a story of humane progress. But many Middle Eastern countries are behind us in this. Beheadings, stonings, and hanging with a "short drop" are common.

What will Saddam's hanging be like? A short drop or a carefully calculated long drop? Will he be strapped in a harness to focus the impact? Will his death be quick or will he struggle for a while at the end of a rope? Will it be a public entertainment, as is common in the Middle East? I suspect we have no more control over these factors than we have over security in Iraq.

Don't misread this column as sympathy for a tyrant who deserves considerably worse than hanging. If we were a different kind of nation we would torture him to death in public and put it on pay-per-view. But part of the genius of our democracy is that we've realized that the only way to give our worst criminals what they actually deserve is to sink to their dehumanized level. And generally we've refused to do that.

No matter how much Saddam deserves it, hanging anyone is a primitive, gruesome business. Since we overthrew Saddam to diminish brutality in the world, his hanging is an ironic step backwards.

John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail: jcrisp(AT) . For more stories visit

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