A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Bad Looking: Saddam Hussein’s Execution and Binary Understandings of Spectatorship

Megan Eatman, Clemson University

(Published April 22, 2015)

There are two public videos of Saddam Hussein’s execution.1 The first, produced and released by the Iraqi government, shows an orderly proceeding in which two masked men lead Saddam to the gallows and put a noose around his neck. The video does not have sound, nor does it show the moment of Saddam Hussein’s death.2 The government recorded this video to serve as the primary documentation of the event. The video was circulated on Iraqi and American news stations shortly after the execution along with an image of Saddam Hussein’s corpse after it was removed from the noose (Raman et. al). The second video, recorded on a cell phone, paints a different picture of the event. Unlike the official video, the cell phone video shows the moment of Saddam Hussein’s execution and an image of his “horribly twisted” face at the end of the noose (qtd. in Stanley). The cell phone video also has sound; it documents the audience taunting Saddam Hussein, Saddam Hussein’s responses, and his prayer as he drops from the gallows.

Saddam Hussein’s execution was “spectacular” in the sense that Wendy Hesford uses to describe what she calls “human rights spectacles.” Hesford injects nuance into Guy Debord’s concept of the spectacle as a means of domination. Like Debord, Hesford describes the spectacle as “a social relationship among people that is mediated by images,” but she disagrees with Debord’s claim that the spectacle completely dominates individual perception (qtd. in Hesford 15). Hesford’s human rights spectacles are problematic, often reproducing uneven power relations between Western viewers and the powerless subjects of their gaze, but they are neither totalizing nor divorced from existing community standards. She suggests that “instead of thinking about the spectacle as a narcotic, we need to understand it as heterogeneous and rhetorically dialogic process that is nevertheless subsumed within repetitive forms” (19). The spectacle in this sense is a coordinated flashpoint that reinforces, rather than imposes, community values.

While the execution was not supposed to be so highly visible, its surrounding rhetoric indicates that it was supposed to be “spectacular” in Hesford’s sense, reframing relationships between Sunni and Shi’a Iraqis, Iraqis and the United States and, implicitly, Americans and the War on Terror. In a speech prepared before (but delivered after) Saddam Hussein’s hanging, George W. Bush described the execution’s constitutive function: “Bringing Saddam Hussein to justice will not end the violence in Iraq, but it is an important milestone on Iraq’s course to becoming a democracy that can govern, sustain, and defend itself, and be an ally in the War on Terror” (Longley). As Barbie Zelizer notes, the execution “came at a point of heightened dissatisfaction with the ‘war on terror,’which had reached a turning point with the images from Abu Ghraib” (293). Bush’s commentary frames the execution as a necessary ritual that will help transform Iraq into an American-style democracy, thereby reducing violence and improving conditions in the War on Terror. Here, and throughout the rhetoric around the execution, Saddam Hussein’s execution is less a punishment than a message to Iraqis: you are democratic now.3 If this message was convincing, the execution would establish a US-friendly community that pre-war rhetoric had insisted was easily achievable, but had not materialized.4 Given the already volatile situation, it would seem as if the botched execution and circulating cell phone video  would serve as tools for anti-war and anti-death penalty activists. The execution’s visible disorder violated American standards for “humane” execution. The sectarian taunts made it seem unlikely that the execution would achieve the constitutive rhetorical purpose that Bush described. Actual responses to the incident, however, were more complicated, and that gap between expectation and reality is this article’s starting point.

To address how this rhetorical framing affects this event/image’s afterlife, this article shifts the focus away from the spectacle itself to look instead at rhetorical constructions of the spectator. This focus mirrors that of the rhetoric around the execution. While many rhetors lament the procedural issues in Saddam Hussein’s execution, they suggest that the problem is not the execution itself, but rather that audiences—specifically Iraqi Sunnis—will “misunderstand” the execution and respond with violence. These claims of “misunderstanding” indicate that there is only one correct understanding of the execution: as a step toward American-style democracy in Iraq. With this understanding comes a correct reaction: disappointment that the execution, as Bush put it, had not “gone in a more dignified way,” but an understanding that it was still for the good of Iraq (qtd. in Karadsheh et al.). Who can look and interpret is at the core of this rhetoric. Looking at how these arguments construct both viewers and their “correct” or “incorrect” understandings is essential to understanding the spectacle’s function.

In this article, I will discuss how responses to the cell phone video of Saddam Hussein’s execution use allegations of misunderstanding to narrow interpretations of the execution and reinforce a pro-war binary of civilization and savagery. While many viewers had access to the execution, either through the video itself or descriptions of the event, I focus on how rhetors characterize one audience: Iraqi Sunnis. Commentary in newspapers and popular media constructs Iraqi Sunnis as bad interpreters and bad people, incapable of understanding the “correct” meaning of the execution and prone to “bad” forms of violence. In this way, the execution’s procedural flaws, including its widespread visibility, actually allow rhetors to reinforce pro-war constructions of a “Middle Eastern Muslim other” that is coterminous with his/her “culture.” The execution is botched in the sense that it does not adhere to American standards for “humane” execution, but it may be more effective in reinforcing in-group/out-group divisions and thus supporting the War on Terror than a quiet, dignified execution would have been.

While I will argue that claims about misunderstanding violence can support structures of oppression, I do not mean to suggest that there is no morally wrong way to look at an image of violence. Like many scholars of visual rhetoric and violence, I would prefer that viewers see victims of violence as human and violence itself as unacceptable. In recognizing that correct and incorrect ways of looking are constructed and can be mobilized for problematic purposes, we can learn more about the visual afterlives of violent acts,the way violence is supposed to work for various audiences, and how engaging with violent spectacle functions as an often-disavowed form of political participation. In many of the responses to Saddam Hussein’s execution, rhetors designate a correct response that runs counter to both the rhetoric leading up to the execution and the execution’s physical construction. Implicitly or explicitly pro-violence rhetoric uses these claims about correct interpretation to narrow understandings of public violence.

Bad Looking and Bad People

The idea that execution is a text that only certain audiences can read correctly is pervasive in the history of the modern American death penalty. While Saddam Hussein’s execution is not a clear-cut example of an American execution, its rhetorical framing in the US press suggested similar goals and concerns, and responses to the execution invoked specifically American standards for “humane” execution. The somewhat convoluted communicative structure and goals of Saddam Hussein’s execution mirror the structure of execution in the United States. There are two key imagined audiences: the in-group that authorizes the execution and understands its significance and the out-group of would-be criminals who learn not to commit crimes.5 Execution’s design as a persuasive text implies a divided community, only part of which needs the execution’s didactic function. Given this construction, it is not surprising that arguments about botched execution often address the problem as one of audience as much as (or more than) procedure.

While the characterization of Iraqi Sunnis relies on existing stereotypes of Middle Eastern Muslims, the trope of misunderstanding used to discount their responses has been applied to other audiences and structured the development of private execution in the United States. Before the mid-nineteenth century, publicness was an essential part of execution procedure, and viewing an execution was not considered shameful. People from surrounding communities would travel to witness the often multi-hour ceremony, typically held in a venue that could accommodate a crowd. Executions served a pedagogical function. As Stephen John Hartnett explains, “physical punishments and the death penalty were employed as public spectacles of seeing and knowing, as means of drawing clear lines to demark values, identities, and the cost of transgressing community norms” (5). To reinforce these messages, hangings were typically accompanied by gallows speeches, sermons, and/or pamphlets warning the spectators against a life of crime and its supposed precursors, like alcohol or idleness.6 These hangings were also a form of entertainment that the audience sometimes sided with the condemned, which did not initially threaten the institution. The death penalty’s didactic potential appeared to outweigh concerns that the crowds might get the wrong message (Banner 28).

The move to private executions was motivated in part by changing conceptions of what constituted appropriate viewing for civilized people. David Garland notes that men and women of taste were supposed to “draw back in disgust at the sight of vulgarity or unpleasantness, above all from scenes of violence or brutality;” he quotes John Stuart Mill’s statement that “ it is in avoiding the presence not only of actual pain, but of whatever suggests offensive or disagreeable ideas, that a great part of refinement consists” (145). Hanging was frequently gory. Sometimes the condemned died instantly and sometimes he or she strangled over the course of several minutes. There was no certainty the former could be guaranteed instead of the latter (Banner 170). However, Banner notes that “[b]efore the last third of the nineteenth century, accounts of bungled or obviously painful executions contain no indication that spectators found them too troubling to bear” (172). New attitudes about violent spectacle complicated public execution. Given that civilized people were not supposed to see gore, it seemed increasingly unlikely that public execution would sway audiences in a moral direction. Prominent citizens and political authorities began to worry that public executions were corrupting the poor and working class audience members--thought to be highly susceptible to negative influence--rather than persuading them to avoid crime. As a Massachusetts newspaper put it, “An hundred persons are made worse, where one is made better by a public execution” (qtd. in Banner 150).

Thus, while rhetors agreed that public hanging was no longer appropriate, they also suggested that the spectacle would have different effects on different audiences. While elite viewers would be offended, poor and working class audience members would be corrupted. In this case, both groups have an undesirable reading, but only one group’s reading is “incorrect.” For elites, execution was supposed to affirm the community’s civilized status. If the execution was overly gory based on the prevailing standards of the time, it was correct for elites to see those procedural problems as distasteful and therefore not representative of a civilized community. The execution was a misrepresentation, a deviation from the death penalty’s true purposes and the community’s true nature. In other words, if an educated upper class audience did not approve of a particular execution, then the execution was the problem. According to the dominant rhetoric of the time, however, poor and working class audiences were likely to see the execution as pro-violence. This was the opposite of the alleged intended message and their interpretive inadequacies were largely to blame. While authorities found flaws in hanging procedure, the movement to private execution with small, elite audiences suggests that the real problem was who was seeing the execution. Getting the execution filtered through reports from witnesses narrowed by race, sex, and class to avoid “any semblance of an unruly or impressionable crowd” would ensure that there was no room for interpretation, since the poor and working class audience was prone to incorrect interpretation (Wood 28).

We can understand these rules for viewing execution, as well as their implicit characterizations of elite and poor audiences, as a form of visuality. Nicholas Mirzoeff describes visuality as“the opposite of the right to look...that authority to tell us to move on, that exclusive claim to be able to look” (2). Visuality structures the visible, regulating access and determining what counts as important information for different audiences. It differs from straightforward censorship in that what would be seen is not always hidden; rather, it can be exposed, but framed in a way that suggests that it is insignificant or dangerous for some viewers. For Mirzoeff, visuality is intimately connected to power, arranging structures of visibility in a way that “[supplements] the violence of authority” (3). Nineteenth-century understandings of the problem with public execution draw on existing beliefs about who can interpret and who is moral, as well as images of the poor as prone to heightened sensual responses, in contrast to the refined, intellectual elite. By regulating who could look, as well as the “correct” way for different audiences to process certain forms of visual data, arguments about public execution reinforced a social structure in which elites passed information down to the unpredictable and unruly poor in an attempt to control their understandings of crime and punishment.

The construction of and responses to Saddam Hussein’s execution suggest a similarly multifaceted communication system, but the characterization of the violence-prone audience is somewhat different. The rhetoric of the War on Terror constructed Middle Eastern Muslims as bound to strong emotions and prone to express those emotions through violence. As Michael Vicaro puts it, “US officials tend to characterize combatants as individuals whose enmity is a part of their essential self and an outcome of a subjective transformation associated with their innermost religious identity” (415). Asymmetrical understandings of “culture” inform these arguments, allowing rhetors to construct a deindividualized “other,” whose only loyalty is to a “primitive” or “barbaric” values system. As Wendy Brown explains, “culture” applies differently to in-groups and out-groups: “culture is understood to drive [t]hem politically and to lead them to attack [o]ur culture, which [w]e are not driven by but which we do cherish and defend” (20). This logic structures the understanding of the terrorist as inherently unreasonable, too devoted to his or her mission to be persuaded by anything other than violence. When seen in this broader context, the assumption that Sunnis will respond to the allegedly acceptable violence of Saddam Hussein’s execution with unacceptable violence constructs an othered subject with which many Americans would already be familiar. A negative response to what the cell phone video shows can thus come to mark audience members as “other,” while adherence to the “correct” understanding signifies in-group membership.

In these contexts, out-group readings of execution are “wrong” in several ways. They are incorrect in that the audience is not receiving the message that the execution is allegedly designed to send, but they are constructed as morally wrong as well in that the out-group members’assumed violent responses violate community standards for justifiable violence. Equally importantly, however, these responses are “wrong” in that they are distasteful. An otherwise properly-conducted execution marred by an unruly crowd can offend elites because the crowd’s response, rather than the violence itself, violates standards of decorum. Critiques of allegedly wrong responses to execution often suggest that misunderstanding spectators are multiply flawed: prone to misunderstand and misuse violence, and prone to grotesque, if non-violent, behavior. This rhetoric distances the audience that “understands” the execution from the violent, corrupted spectators to whom the execution’s message is directed.

Sunni Violence and “Misunderstanding”

Most of the limited commentary on Saddam Hussein’s execution focuses on the execution’s rhetorical failure.7 In line with Bush’s commentary above, this commentary suggests that the execution, if conducted correctly, could have increased peace and unity in Iraq. Instead, commenters argue the disorderly display inspired violent reactions from Iraqi Sunnis, thereby decreasing stability and damaging the United States’“mission.” The focus on an assumed-violent Sunni reaction, along with the near-total elision of the procedural issues in Saddam Hussein’s trial and the other varied negative responses to the execution, suggests that Sunnis’interpretive inadequacies are a key source of any post-execution violence. Because the Americans who discuss the execution do so with only mild disappointment, their claims about impending Sunni violence suggest that Sunni reaction is out-of-proportion. This rhetoric projects both the “incorrect” interpretation and inadequate interpretive skills onto Sunnis, thereby deflecting responsibility from the United States and reinforcing the construction of the Middle Eastern Muslim other as overly emotional, easily offended, and prone to violence.

This characterization is not always easy to see because it is often hard to distinguish when rhetors are lamenting the flawed execution procedure and when they are lamenting the fact that people saw it. Many politicians and commenters suggested that Saddam Hussein’s execution would harm the United States’mission in Iraq. When asked for comment, Senator John McCain said, “It’s a bad thing, it’s harmful, and I’m sorry that it happened. Obviously, it unnecessarily inflames the emotions of the Sunnis” (qtd. in Zeleny and Cooper). As with many of these arguments, it is not clear whether McCain is referring to the procedural flaws in the execution itself or its visibility, made possible by a security breach. It is clear, though, that McCain is concerned about rhetorical effect. According to McCain, Sunnis received an undesirable (if not necessarily incorrect) message from the execution, which is “harmful” in an unspecified way. News anchor Tom Brokaw’s commentary was more explicit. While he maintained that Saddam Hussein “was a god awful man,” he also argued that “to have [the execution] just fuel more sectarian violence at a time when we are trying to dampen that is not helpful, which is an understatement” (qtd. in “Brokaw: Hussein Execution”).

Even arguments that are more obviously concerned with the execution’s procedural failings single out Sunnis as particularly volatile interpreters. Senator Susan M. Collins noted that the video would likely anger Sunnis in part because “taunting someone who is about to be executed is just blatantly unacceptable” (qtd. in Zeleny and Cooper).The commenters’lack of outrage or concern about potential American outrage suggests that Iraqi Sunnis will “misunderstand” the execution because of their own cultural issues. The American commenters will not become violent, nor are the commenters concerned that Americans will become violent in reaction to the video. The hypothetical violence in these arguments can only come from Iraqis.

The focus on an assumed-violent Sunni reaction reframes the issue of sectarian violence. Constructing Sunnis as prone to violence, particularly in response to perceived sectarian offense, reinforces the idea that violence is endemic to Iraq and thus detached from the United States’invasion and occupation. This characterization fits the asymmetrical understanding of culture that Brown describes. The logic of these arguments suggests that it is extremely difficult for Sunnis and Shi’ites to resolve their differences because they have no essence apart from those differences. In these arguments, the United States is the victim, fighting a war to save unreasonable people from themselves. In this way, the above rhetoric supports the ongoing war effort by suggesting an overblown violent response to an event that the commenters characterize as merely unfortunate.

The focus on the disorder at Saddam Hussein’s execution elides controversial procedural issues in his trial and thus key reasons why both Iraqi and outside audiences might critique the execution. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) report Judging Dujail enumerates several problems with the Iraqi High Tribunal (IHT) in general and Saddam Hussein’s trial in particular. The IHT’s unusual hybrid construction was one source of concern. The report explains, “The IHT has jurisdiction over Iraqis, and non-Iraqis residing in Iraq, accused of committing genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes between July 1968 and May 2002” (HRW). Unlike the international tribunals more typically convened to deal with large-scale violations of international law, the IHT paired crimes defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court with procedures and penalties from Iraqi law. This hybridization meant that the IHT did not use the special procedures that other international courts developed to handle large-scale crimes with multiple defendants. Additionally, the Tribunal’s requirement “that the judges, prosecutors, and staff of the court, and the principal defense lawyer for the accused, be Iraqi nationals” meant that many of the individuals involved in the trial had little or no experience with international law (HRW).

Saddam Hussein’s trial did little to assuage doubts about the IHT’s capacity to fairly and effectively try these serious crimes. HRW identified several issues with the trial, including a lack of impartiality, violations of Saddam Hussein’s rights as a defendant, and “lapses in judicial demeanor,”among other issues. The report concludes that the trial “did not meet key fair trial standards” and that “the soundness of the verdict is questionable” (HRW). The report, then, provides many reasons why even individuals who support the death penalty might object to Saddam Hussein’s execution.

A focus on the execution’s procedural issues is also part of a broader deflection of responsibility, one that supports an argument for continued intervention in Iraq.Much of the broader commentary and all of the Bush Administration’s commentary on Saddam Hussein’s execution gives Iraqi officials the sole responsibility for the execution’s disorder and any subsequent problems. American and Iraqi authorities consistently emphasized that the United States was not involved in the execution. American military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell IV replied to questions about the execution: “You know, if you’re asking me, ‘Would we have done things differently,’yes, we would have...But that’s not our decision. That’s an Iraqi government decision” (qtd. in Glanz and Burns). These claims rely on a narrow understanding of what it means to be responsible for an act of violence, as well as a limited view of the causes of sectarian violence in Iraq. While there were no American personnel in the execution chamber, the United States captured Saddam Hussein, helped to establish the tribunal that tried him, and held him until just before his execution when he was transferred to Iraqi custody and executed at a joint US-Iraqi military facility known as “Camp Justice.” Additionally, the United States was still occupying Iraq at the time of the execution. Constructing the execution as a solely Iraqi blunder, then, separates the execution from a recent history of violent occupation and suggests that any discontent that follows the execution is due to Iraqi inadequacies rather than ongoing instability.

The claim that the execution could have served a positive rhetorical purpose reinforces a teleological narrative in which civilization is based in part on wielding violence in a dignified way. Because Saddam Hussein’s execution is largely constructed as the result of Iraqi error, critiques of the execution often imply American superiority. For example, while Noah Feldman’s critique is one of the few that mentions the problems with Saddam Hussein’s trial, it also suggests that the execution was a “missed opportunity” for Iraqis to practice sober and dignified justice. Feldman suggests that, if American forces had provided more security, the execution could have had a positive, constitutive effect. Even though Feldman acknowledges American responsibility, his argument keeps understandings of how execution works intact, thereby reinforcing the claim that violence is an essential part of community building.

In this way, the Saddam Hussein execution video actually allows for a dual othering centered on inappropriate uses of and responses to violence. The focus on Iraqi incompetence and the execution’s rhetorical failure suggests that Iraqis are less advanced than Americans because they cannot conduct state violence with the solemnity and didacticism that is supposed to characterize domestic executions. Thomas Friedman refers to the disorder at the execution as “raw tribal theatrics,” suggesting that the conflict marks Iraqis as uncivilized. The decorous use of state violence is a key part of “civilization,” and the execution video offers rhetors the opportunity to critique what they see as an inappropriate response to execution. The decontextualized focus on potential Sunni violence reinforces a civilized/savage binary as well. The focus on Sunni violence projects a monolithic Sunni community and ignores the range of opinions about and reactions to Saddam Hussein’s execution. These arguments insist that Saddam Hussein’s execution was by and for Iraqis, and was botched in large part because of their internal flaws.

Because the surrounding arguments consistently deflect responsibility onto Iraqis, the visibility of Saddam Hussein’s execution actually lends itself to an argument for continued American intervention. Much of the rhetoric around this event suggests that the video illustrates an endemic violence and chronic ineptitude that is separate from the United States’invasion and occupation. Even arguments that acknowledge the United States’partial responsibility rely heavily on American understandings of what “good” violence looks like, along with the implication that good violence is the mark of democracy and civilization. While Saddam Hussein’s execution disrupted narratives of a unified, pro-United States Iraqi population, its framing in these responses aids pro-war rhetoric by suggesting that American forces are still needed because of Iraqis’fundamental inadequacies.


The responses to Saddam Hussein’s execution, particularly when viewed within the historical context of American death penalty rhetoric, illustrate how norms for spectatorship can narrow interpretations of violent spectacle. The dominant rhetoric around the execution projects “incorrect” and morally wrong reactions onto an existing out-group, thereby reinforcing difference and existing power structures and robbing the out-group of public interpretive rights.8 The spectacle of execution comes with assumptions about what “good” violence can communicate and who needs its message; arguments about who can understand execution (and what constitutes the right understanding) support those values and divisions. Using execution as an argument already assumes two audiences: one that understands the “correct” use of violence and one that does not. Responses to Saddam Hussein’s execution reinforce this assumption by suggesting that Sunni audiences are so deeply prone to misreading that even minor deviations from “humane” execution procedure will lead them to respond with violence. By making the Sunnis a key source of the problem, these arguments distract from questions about whether execution can or should be used to constitute a community or deliver warnings.

The binary frame of correct/incorrect responses to execution also obscures and dismisses a variety of reactions, including some that the execution’s structure and surrounding rhetoric support. Senator Collins’claim that “taunting someone who is about to be executed is just blatantly unacceptable,” contrasts Saddam Hussein’s demonization in the US press and in pre-war Bush Administration rhetoric (qtd. in Zeleny and Cooper). While the restraint of vengeful impulses is a key component of “humane” execution, pro-War on Terror rhetoric suggested that Saddam Hussein was a monster, consistently victimizing Iraqis and always ready to attack the United States. The execution audience’s behavior is indecorous by American standards, but it is not incorrect, even according to dominant American claims about who Saddam Hussein was. Iraqis were supposed to want and need Saddam Hussein’s execution, and, according to Bush’s post-execution speech, Saddam Hussein’s death would make the country better. Framing the audience’s sectarian taunts as obviously inappropriate erases much of that rhetoric, as well as the Iraqi observers’individual experiences and different frames of reference for appropriate execution behavior.9

Lastly, this analysis is important because binary understandings of how viewers respond to violent spectacle are not particular to pro-violence rhetoric. Anti-violence scholars and activists also make claims about good and bad ways to look, and correct and incorrect understandings of violent spectacle. Within anti-violence scholarship, this binary takes the form of witnessing/voyeurism, in which witnessing is good and voyeurism is bad. To witness, Diana George and Diane Shoos explain, “refer[s] to the act of seeing as evidence or proof that an event has occurred. To ‘witness’is...an inherently political act that brings an event to the public for scrutiny” (390). “Voyeurism,” however, “denotes seeing or watching that evokes gratification or pleasure of some sort...voyeurism suggests a shift in power from the person or event being seen to the observer of that event” (390). Here, the morality of witnessing and adherence to standards of decorum are intertwined. Witnessing as it is described here is a public duty, a morally right and appropriate way of being in a community. Additionally, the witness’s confirmation “that an event has occurred” implies interpretation, a recognition that what the witness sees is significant. For witnessing to make sense, a community needs shared standards for what merits witnessing. Thus, while this system of viewing can function as a sort of counter-visuality, working against dominant claims that some suffering is not worth noting, it is still an exercise of power, defining which responses are publicly important and which circumstances are most conducive to producing the “right” response in various audiences. While George and Shoos’definition of voyeurism puts the voyeur in power, there is also power in defining those terms. Understandings of the right way to look structure both discussions about and, to some degree, viewers’experiences of looking; they can obscure or demonize responses that fit both or neither side of the binary.

In her work on lynching photography, Wendy Wolters notes that it is not enough to look at the joyous spectators captured in many lynching snapshots and say, “how could this happen?” What made these spectators enjoy this violence? It is also essential to see the white spectator as implicit, as a part of the structure of the image and a condition of its possibility. Even when we don’t see whiteness, it is there. Similarly, certain understandings of spectatorship and group membership are implicit in both the design of execution itself and in arguments about watching executions, and those understandings can support structures of difference that facilitate violence. Through this sort of research and reflection, we can see that responses to violent images and videos are not just the result of how those texts are framed, but how the act of looking is framed to exclude certain perspectives, interactions, and audiences.

Image Credit: "Viewfinder" by Brian Donovan

  • 1. At the time of my writing, both of these videos are still widely available on YouTube, more than seven years after their initial release. For the official, less graphic video, see siamakold; for the illicit cell phone video, see wordswithmeaning.
  • 2. I refer to Saddam Hussein as “Saddam Hussein” throughout this article to avoid projecting Western norms onto an Iraqi name. See “What’s the Name of Saddam Hussein?”
  • 3. The circumstances of Saddam Hussein’s execution also suggest that punishment or retribution was a secondary function. The Iraqi High Tribunal sentenced Saddam to death for a 1982 massacre in Dujail, but the Iraqi government carried out his sentence before he could be tried for numerous other crimes, most notably genocide against the Kurds in 1988 (Human Rights Watch).
  • 4. Bush’s pre-war rhetoric relied heavily on a linked articulation of Americans and Iraqis. Kenneth S. Zagacki argues that many of Bush’s speeches “addressed both Americans and Iraqis” in an attempt to constitute them as a single, pro-democracy community (272). Zagacki explains that this vision was essential to Bush’s invasion rhetoric: “For Bush, the whole idea of ‘regime change’presupposed that Iraqis would participate in and secure democratic practices” (273).
  • 5. In the case of condemned individuals accused of smaller-scale crimes (for example, a single murder rather than genocide), death penalty rhetoric often focuses on a third audience: victims’families. Responses to Saddam’s execution often do not designate a separate class of victims.
  • 6. Hartnett cites one such pamphlet from the 1807 execution of John M’Kean: “Ye votaries of Vice! You who are spending your time, your substance, and your health, take warning by the untimely fate of John M’Kean!! The sin of Drunkenness and Debauchery may, ere you are aware, lead you as afar as it has done him...” (215).
  • 7. Saddam Hussein’s execution received minimal coverage, with most articles appearing on the day of and the day after the execution (Dimitrova and Lee 542).
  • 8. I refer to public interpretive rights because Iraqi Sunnis can and do interpret Saddam Hussein’s execution, but the dominant discourse around the execution insists that their interpretations are inherently flawed.
  • 9. While this article focuses on American constructions of spectatorship and the death penalty, it is worth noting that there was plenty of pro-execution rhetoric from within Iraq as well, and those claims could have informed the Iraqi audiences’understandings of the event. For example, Shi’a leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim described the execution as “the will of the people,” and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani stated that “Saddam Hussein is a war criminal who deserves to be executed 20 times a day for his crimes against humanity” (qtd. in HRW 42).
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