A three-minute video now circulating on the Web shows in painful detail what has become an increasingly commonplace event this summer, a public hanging in Iran. A crowd of about 2,000 gathers in a public square as two condemned young men are brought to the temporary gallows. One of them holds his head erect and wears a proud, serene smile. The other looks baffled, as if unsure how he got here. The three hangmen are hooded like terrorists, in black balaclavas.
In matter-of-fact tones, a man reads a proclamation. No one shows excitement or distress. The soldiers who have cordoned off the area chat amiably as they wait. One man in the crowd smiles, apparently pleased that he's grabbed a front-row spot.
Blue nylon ropes, each of them ending in a noose, hang from two portable construction cranes. The men who are about to die stand on a flatbed truck. Nooses go around their necks and they climb onto tall stools, which the hangmen immediately kick from under them. The men seem to die quickly.
A loudspeaker blasts a message: "Death to hypocrites! Death to the terrorists! Death to America!"
The hanged men were Majid Kavousifar, 28, the one who smiled, and his nephew, Hossein Kavousifar, 24. Two years ago (according to the courts) they murdered a judge who presided over a "guidance court" that judges "moral corruption." He jailed many political dissidents.
The public hangings, on Aug. 2 in Tehran, were the result of a recent change in Iranian punishment, a change that has not been announced locally and has been little discussed in the West. In 2007 so far, Iran has executed at least 151 people, the most since 1984 and many more than in the same period last year. The total for 2006 was 177.
Iran now uses execution more often than any other country except China, to punish a broad range of criminality and political resistance. Shariah law, as Iran interprets it, allows the death penalty for murder, rape, armed robbery, apostasy, blasphemy, drug trafficking, sodomy, adultery, prostitution and treason. Since the Islamic state was founded in 1979, nonpolitical crimes have usually drawn prison sentences. This year, judges increasingly opt for execution. In the holy city of Mashad last week, the authorities publicly executed seven rapists and kidnappers. In that case as in others, the executions ran live on local TV.
The theocratic Iranian authorities have made execution into a form of public performance art, with a message -- that the hard men are in charge of Iranian society on all levels and will tolerate neither disloyalty nor immorality. They claim (as the cabinet minister for intelligence said on Wednesday in a government-owned newspaper) that the United States, having abandoned the idea of attacking Iran, has decided instead to bring down the government through a "soft revolution" organized by local intellectuals.
This means Iran must fight against the enemies within while showing no weakness in matters of private conduct. Taking a renewed interest in punishing immorality, police in the town of Kara, west of Tehran, recently arrested 230 young people who were partying to rap and rock music, many of them females immodestly dressed; the police seized 800 CDs they considered decadent. Last week, the government shut down a newspaper, Sharq, for interviewing a lesbian poet.
The European Union, and Italy in particular, have protested the executions. Iran has coldly ignored Italy's campaign to eliminate capital punishment around the world. The EU has asked for reconsideration of death sentences that now hang over two Kurd-ish-Iranian journalists affiliated with the Kurdistan party. Iran has replied that even comments by a foreign country on law enforcement constitute an unacceptable intrusion in Iran's internal affairs.
Still, nothing but foreign pressure has anything like a chance of slowing the executions. In Germany, Stefan Warner in Die Welt asked why German politicians and intellectuals have been largely silent on this issue: "Why is there so little criticism here of the Iranian regime and its cruel methods? Why does everyone get up in arms every time a death sentence is carried out in the U.S.A., and no one cares when people are executed in Iran?" What's true of German critics is also true of those in Canada and the United States itself.
Perhaps the explanation lies in the talk last spring about bombing Iranian nuclear facilities. That project made people so nervous that they now instinctively avoid saying anything that might seem to support an attack by making Iran seem even more brutal than we already know it is.