Foucault analyses a basic blueprint of the ‘ritual’ of public criminal punishment enacted in a nigh-choreographed fashion with all parties involved in it having roles which, while more-or-less unstated—they were expected to play. The impetus for this ‘performance’ comes from the highest authority: the Sovereign. As Foucault describes it the breaking of a law, no matter how trivial or harmless, is a rebellion against the ruler who claims authority to make and enforce laws. The ruler is the source of the judges’, prosecutors’, and executioners’ powers to carry out their jobs and so they effectively act as proxies to the monarch. These officials whom oppose the criminal, detain him, and enact punishment therefore represent agents of the ruler’s justice. Their adversary, the criminal, is the enemy of the ruler and—again, in a less-obvious fashion—his state. At the ‘moment of truth,’ as Foucault calls the time just before an execution, the accused’s role is to present a meek figure, faced with complete and utter defeat at the hands of the ruler’s power. To legitimise the ruler’s oft heavy-handed retaliation, he is expected to confess; to say how awful his deeds were and to resign himself to justice—his death is to be a triumph of the ruler and of justice over crime. Finally the general public, naturally present at a public execution, is to bear witness to the spectacle. They are to stand by in awe of the power of the ruler and of justice; the grisly show planting a fear of rebelling against the ‘just’ Sovereign in them while at the same time cheering for justice and accepting the ‘triumph’.
But sometimes the roles are not played as intended. Making a public spectacle of the execution invites the public not only to witness the event, but to be a part of its process. The unwritten ‘script’ calls for them to effectively give their consent; the proverbial ‘last nail in the coffin’ for the accused and making the ‘justice’ of the situation unquestionable. However, the general public is not always on the side of the Sovereign’s power. Foucault highlights several cases in where the crowd pities, sympathises with, or even outright supports the condemned. In one case the crowd fatally attacked the execution after perceiving that he was acting with too much brutality, carrying the accused to safety, bringing him to the archbishop and receiving a pardon for him, and to top it all off: pitching in to get him a nice new set of clothes. Furthermore, old records of the executions seem to paint many pictures of truly repentant, good souls forced to bear a cruel fate. Foucault states that many a condemned criminal faced their death with a sort of heroic resignation that bred sympathy for them. As such, crime and punishment began to shift away from being a matter of public spectacle.
The photographs concerning Iranian execution seem to show exactly the sort of public spectacle Foucault describes. There is the sovereign state whose laws have been broken enacting punishment for those transgressions through its agents (the Islamic judges, security personnel, executioners, etc.), the accused whom is published, and the crowds of people whom watch and, through their presence, legitimise the event in a way. The Muhammad Bouazizi video, however, seemed to go into too-little detail about the government’s actual practises. Self-immolation may be a spectacle that can create a martyr, but it is not a case of sovereign authority, acting through the states’ agents, passing judgment on a criminal. Nor is exerting lethal force on a rioting crowd a case of well-choreographed, planned public executions.