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The Power of Spectacle: From Auroras Encore to Saudi Arabia's Chop Chop Square

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I couldn't help but notice that some journalists writing about the Grand National at the weekend were talking about the "spectacle" of the race, and how it was supposedly important to balance this with "equine safety". Hmm. I'm not sure what the horses themselves would make of the "spectacle" (not much, I guess, what with them being too busy trying to avoid being killed in the mêlée) but I'm struck once again by the power of spectacle in our lives.

Apart from sport (if that's what horse racing is), I'm thinking of politics, the media and (in this post) crime and punishment. The classic means of exerting political control over unruly subjects used to be to publicly punish them. It was the spectacle of punishment that really mattered. Recall the famous opening of the philosopher/historian Michel Foucault's Discipline And Punish:

On 1 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned 'to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris', where he was to be 'taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds'; then, 'in the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and claves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds' (Pièces originales..., 372-4).

'Finally, he was quartered,' recounts the Gazette d'Amsterdam of 1 April 1757. 'This last operation was very long, because the horses used were not accustomed to drawing; consequently, instead of four, six were needed; and when that did not suffice, they were forced, in order to cut off the wretch's thighs, to sever the sinews and hack at the joints...'

Grotesque cruelty? Undoubtedly. But firmly in the past, no? Er, not quite. Two hundred and fifty-six years later - last month, on 27 March to be exact - a Yemeni man was beheaded in the Saudi Arabian city of Jizan and then had his body 'crucified' (ie displayed in public on a pole). It wasn't a one-off. Last year the Saudi authorities also crucified a Sudanese man after his head had been severed by the executioner.

As the Sunday Express pointed out at the weekend, Saudi Arabia's various 'Chop Chop Squares' have rarely been quiet. The country has busily carried out scores of public executions (usually beheadings) in the last few years - there were at least 79 last year alone, and seven were killed (by firing squad in a market square) in just one day last month. And don't think it's just Saudi Arabia with one foot still in the medieval period. Iran carried out at least 63 public executions last year (part of a staggering number of executions that probably exceeded 540 for the year), and its predilection for judicial killing in public is growing - see this new Amnesty report, p31.

China, by far the world's biggest user of capital punishment, has a long track record of parading condemned prisoners (shades of the infamous last journey from Newgate prison to Tyburn in 17th and 18th Century London). Chinese state TV recently broadcast a two-hour live special on the transportation to execution of four Burmese prisoners. The USA isn't that much different. The lethal injections it carries out in its prisons are viewed by numerous people, including the relatives of murder victims. The 'clinical' insertion of poisons into the bloodstream during a lethal injection might seem a world away from the gory dismemberment of Damiens, but I wonder ...

Okay, some perspective. Public executions are comparatively rare, as indeed is any kind of capital punishment at the global level. The figures show that only a hardcore of 21 countries carried out executions in 2012, and in fact 140 countries have now either formally abolished the death penalty or no longer use it. (Fine. I'd like to see that becoming all countries abolishing it, a death penalty-free world).

But how do we account for the stubborn persistence of cruel public punishments from 18th Century France to 21st Century scenarios? I think it's to do with the way that politicised spectacle is still somehow part of all justice systems. Why else do we have barristers in English courts wearing 18th Century "court coats" and horsehair wigs for instance? In fact, as I was suggesting, it seems that spectacle is an enormously important part of modern life, probably more so than ever in the television age. Just not, thankfully, one that usually involves the sight of an individual being killed by the authorities.

Quick afterword: one of the sources for Foucault's account of Damiens' last tormented moments noted that when the horses tried to 'quarter' his body the horses couldn't pull any of limbs from their sockets and in fact one of the horses collapsed to the ground with the repeated effort. In addition to human-to-human cruelty it's another reminder of how various kinds of animal cruelty have also been part of our long and often unsavoury fascination with the dazzling spectacle...

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