COMMENT: Peter Tatchell – A quote for every occasion?
The execution of Saddam Hussein led commentator Ben Leung to confront his mixed feelings towards gay rights activist Peter Tatchell.
Despite staying up the night before for news of his demise, it wasn’t until I saw the front-page of The Times newspaper at a windswept Ascot racecourse that I truly accepted that Saddam was dead.
The headline of the 4am edition was brief and succinct: ‘SADDAM HANGED’, two words which not many people could ever have imagined seeing had suddenly become a reality.
As a student of history, I couldn’t help but feel the massive void left by a man who had dominated our lives for over a quarter of a century in one form or another.
The speed at which his execution took place – from the appeal to the handover and the hanging itself – was breathtakingly swift. I certainly didn’t expect him to go before the end of the year, especially with so many trials still to come.
Let me just clarify that I am not a Saddam apologist, nor do I feel particularly strongly against his death penalty.
But his death is and will be a defining moment in modern history. Following the events of that cold morning in Baghdad I was watching history unfold before my eyes.
It was as historic as the day when the Pope died, or seeing those towers come tumbling down in New York on September 11th – dates which would define the 21st century.
Of course, criticisms of his sentencing were swift, in particular Arab regimes wary of the timing of his death on the first day of Eid.
Human-rights groups have also been quick to condemn his killing, including the veteran campaigner Peter Tatchell who said that death penalty is not the most effective way of dealing with a brutal tyrant.
Prior to that, I had never really taken to Mr Tatchell for the simple reason that he popped up everywhere. In an age of 24-hour television news, he, along with Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty have become a new breed of super-pundits/commentators/analysts that the media inevitably turns to in times of crisis.
I have no problem with what they do, and I’m sure they mean well. However, by lending their names to so many different causes, Ms Chakrabarti and Mr Tatchell run the risk of diluting their credibility and confusing the audience as to who they are and what they stand for.
I am never sure what Peter Tatchell is going to discuss when I see him appear on television – Westminster politics, Iraq, Zimbabwe or gay rights?
This is a shame as Tatchell is never dull. He often gives a good account of his viewpoints, too, as was evident during a debate earlier on in the week on Sky News about the grainy, unofficial pictures taken at Saddam’s hanging.
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Tatchell argued that Saddam’s execution and the audible chanting by the Shiites present at the gallows was ‘the epitome of religious sectarianism’, with the ruling government bent on revenge against the Sunnis.
He added that a life-sentence in jail with pictures of his victims adorning the prison-cell would be a far better sentence for the former Iraqi dictator than hanging.
Tatchell is absolutely spot-on in his assessment on the long-term implications for Iraq. Saddam’s hanging merely alleviates the government of one tiny problem, with very little or no effects on the future of the country.
Meanwhile, the other guest in the debate, John Gaunt, a right-wing columnist for The Sun, had very little to say other than Saddam was a monster and deserved to die.
Clearly, there is no right or wrong in this debate, and besides, the death sentence had already been taken out and little can be done about it, but Tatchell provided some much-needed balance in an often biased world.
Always articulate, and never a push-over, Peter Tatchell is a tremendous spokesman in all matters human-rights. But I just wish he would keep a lower profile and not let his omnipresence get in the way of his message.