Everyday Semiotics

Friday, December 29, 2006

To hang by the neck until dead

So they hanged Saddam Hussein.

Some first impressions: I was in the newsroom when word came in that the first uncomfirmed reports from Arab newsorgans had made their way to Western media about 10 p.m. Space was quickly found on the next morning's front page. But what, I ask somewhat rhetorically, makes the actual event more newsworthy than the fact that he was sentenced to hang, and that an appeal to the sentence had been denied? (Neither story made the front page, at my newspaper at least.)

On television, the hint and then the confirmation that the deed had been done was mainly an excuse to let talking heads do their thing and to play back video of Saddam's greatest hits: firing a rifle off a balcony wearing a fedora, unsheathing a sword given to him as a gift as he stood in front of the stunningly pink curtains of his palace, and finally getting his teeth inspected by a US Army medic.

Online, in at least two places, graphics showed Saddam in noble stances while type gave us the year of his birth and the year of his death. These images most struck my fancy tonight, because they reminded me so much fo the lionizing, deifying, iconizing posters of Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, et alii that follow the same design. In one photo, Hussein is solemn yet defiant: this is how we remember him from his trial -- questioning the very basis of the authority by which he was being tried. In the other he is a happy man, a satisfied politician hailing the masses as they hail him back. This is the antithesis of how we remember him, but the thesis of how he saw himself and the basis of how he conducted himself before the court.

What are we to make of these images? No doubt they were made hours ago by the graphics departments of CNN and the NYT in anticipation of the event. But in seeking to create an illustration that on both Web sites would be the portal onto retrospectives of the dictator's career, why would both chose to mimic the memorial merchandice of America's fallen artistic and cultural heroes?

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