McVeigh's execution should be televised
Opinion, Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe, March 11, 2001
On April 19, 1995, he sent 168 innocent men, women, and children to their deaths. On May 16, 2001, at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., he is scheduled to be sent to his own.
Should we be allowed to watch?
In a letter to The Daily Oklahoman last month, Timothy McVeigh argued that the right to view his execution should not be limited to just a few witnesses. Nor should it be restricted to a closed-circuit telecast for a few hundred relatives of McVeigh's victims. "Hold a true public
execution," he urged. "Allow a public broadcast."
McVeigh's opinion will of course have no bearing on whatever arrangements the Federal Bureau of Prisons makes for carrying out his death sentence, nor should it. His lawyer claims that McVeigh's interest in a prime-time execution stems from his belief in "public scrutiny of government action," but it seems equally reasonable to interpret it as an egotistical bid to build an audience for what he no doubt regards as his impending martyrdom.
Nevertheless, the point he raises deserves some thought. Why shouldn't his execution - indeed, every execution - be televised?
For most of American history, murderers were executed in the open. It wasn't until the 1930s, in a reaction to the raucous spectacles that public hangings sometimes became, that executions were moved behind prison walls. It would be more decorous, legislators came to feel, to put criminals to death in private, late at night, with only a few witnesses looking on.
But we no longer need to choose between openness and order. Television makes it possible to execute a criminal in a setting that is secluded and
somber yet visible to millions. The public's right to know what its government is doing - a right that is regarded more seriously today than it was 70 years ago - can be honored without diminishing the awful gravity that is appropriate to a sentence of death. And surely it is
proper that we know what our government is doing when it inflicts the most severe and violent punishment our laws allow. When the state kills in our behalf, the deed should not be hidden from our eyes.
It is impossible to predict how Americans would react to televised
executions. Some would no doubt be disgusted by the sight; others would be enthralled. Some would find the images on the screen - the prisoner strapped to the gurney, the needle going into his vein - too repellent for words. Others would find them deeply reassuring. Some viewers would be entertained. Others would be bored.
Confronted with the sight of government agents putting people to death, would Americans find it impossible to support capital punishment? Or would they support it even more easily as they grew inured to the reality of it? Capital punishment foes have pressed the argument both ways. My own hunch is that televising executions would not change many minds one way or the other.
And even if it did, is it not better for Americans to make up their minds on such an issue on the basis of with real knowledge? The free flow of information helps keep democracies healthy; that is one reason the First Amendment looms so large in our system. Whether murderers should be
killed or not is an old and thorny question. We will be more likely to work out the right answer if we know what we're talking about.
"The idea of televising Timothy McVeigh's execution seems bizarre and inappropriate," The Daily Oklahoman editorializes, because it would "introduce an aura of entertainment'' into what should be a very sober occasion. But that seems implausible. No serious broadcaster would cover the death of a condemned man other than as a grim and solemn event. And it would not be difficult to make sure that only serious broadcasters were allowed access to the execution chamber.
Airing the death of McVeigh would topple one of television's last taboos, and thoughtful adults don't topple taboos lightly. There is no doubt that for some viewers, a live execution might be too disturbing to watch. But then, for some viewers the savage beating of Rodney King was disturbing to watch. The explosion of the space shuttle and the death of its crew was disturbing to watch. The fatal crash of NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt was disturbing to watch. The Zapruder film of President Kennedy's assassination was disturbing to watch. The tape of Dr. Jack Kevorkian
giving a lethal injection to Thomas Youk - aired on "Sixty Minutes" in 1998 - was disturbing to watch. For better or for worse, television broadcast them all.
Just as, 6 years ago next month, television broadcast the heartshattering scenes of dead and mangled children being pulled from the rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Those, too, were disturbing to watch.
Justice will be done on May 16, when the man who butchered those children is himself put to death. It is wrong that he will die in secret, behind
closed doors, as though his execution is something shameful. It isn't. The death penalty is how a just and decent society responds to murder.
Society should be allowed to bear witness.
TV executions: Why not?
-- Americans no longer demur from watching deaths, be they staged or actual
Opinion, Thomas Doherty, Boston Globe, March 11, 20001
Timothy McVeigh, scheduled to be executed on May 16 by the federal government for his bombing murder of 168 people, has requested that his death by lethal injection be televised live, a suggestion that has sparked debate not on the widely accepted death penalty itself but on the
more controversial issue of broadcasting same. Though McVeigh's request probably will not be granted, the prospect of a televised execution, live or on tape, is surely more imaginable today than it was even a decade ago.
The popular media - television and Hollywood cinema - increasingly have been tantalizing audiences with the ultimate in reality programming: death on screen.
As a spectator sport, public executions can boast a long and popular history. For most of human history, inventive variations on crucifixion,
hanging, decapitation, and drawing and quartering did double duty as punishment and, the executioners hoped, a deterrent to the witnesses. The diversionary-entertainment aspect was part of the public spectacle.
In America, the land that made ''lynch'' a verb, executions both legal and renegade were staged as boisterous soirees until the Progressive
movement and refinements in electricity conspired to shunt the proceedings behind closed doors in the early 1900s. Memorializing the event on film was forbidden (though in 1928, Tom Howard, an enterprising tabloid photographer for the New York Daily News, hid a camera in his pantleg to snap a picture of the murderess Ruth Snyder in the electric chair).
The arrival of the motion picture camera lent the depiction of death a new dimension. Where painters and still photographers had struggled to render the penultimate moment or document the somber aftermath, motion picture cameramen could capture the complete process of transition as the
featured attraction departed the mortal coil: the animate body transformed into inactive matter, the mystery of the living now become the dead.
Before spectators had themselves become deadened to that awesome spectacle, the unspooling of real death on screen was a serious, almost sacred business. In 1932, during the docking of a Navy dirigible, a gustt of wind unexpectedly blew the vessel skyward, with three sailors holding on to the tether lines. The men froze, held the lines tight, and went aloft with the ship some 60 feet in the air. Two lost their grip and plunged to the ground. Though newsreel cameras captured the entire scene,
adverse audience reaction forced the deletion of the images.
"Scenes of actual death are rarely shown in this country," the motion picture trade paper Variety reported at the time, before passing along an intriguing aside: ''Cameramen from force of habit keep grinding, but superstition often makes them open up their boxes and pull out the tragedy, exposing it to the light and fogging the film."
Nonetheless, some deadly tragedies were too visually spectacular not to be projected on screen. In 1937, when the Hindenberg exploded over a
field at Lakehurst, N.J., newsreel audiences watched in horror - and excitement - as passengers leapt to earth silhouetted in the flames.
It was during World War II that death first became a regular motion picture feature. In newsreels and War Department combat reports, a brutal new realism gave the lie to the fake death throes depicted in Hollywood
westerns, where a desperado clutched his chest and swooned into the dirt of Dodge City. Japanese soldiers burned alive on Pacific atolls, Mussolini and his mistress strung up on rafters, Holocaust victims marched to ditches for summary execution - the war bequeathed a frightful montage of indelible motion picture death.
In the postwar era, television expanded the opportunities for sightings of the dead, but for decades network standards and practices kept the living room media as discreet as Hollywood under the Production Code. The
most shocking exception was the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, shot by Jack Ruby on live television on Nov. 24, 1963, an event too sudden and newsworthy to censor.
Even during the Vietnam War, network news programs balked at broadcasting the grisliest images of death. It was a still photograph of a South Vietnamese general murdering a North Vietnamese prisoner, not the 16mm film capturing the act in its grisly entirety, that became iconic.
Similarly, the Zapruder film of President Kennedy's assassination, the single most famous record of death on screen, was not publicly broadcast until March 1975, when Geraldo Rivera defied copyright law and played it on ABC's "Goodnight America." When J.I. Rodale, a health food specialist,
quietly expired during a taping of "The Dick Cavett Show" in 1971, the show was never broadcast, an act of decorum that might not be repeated today.
Beginning in the early 1980s, the proliferation of videotape cameras in the hands of amateur newshounds increased viewers' chances of stumbling upon unrehearsed mayhem and death. Thriving on the serendipity,
reality-based programming and specialty videotapes unwind an endless loop of fatal encounters. The most notorious compilation is the "Faces of Death" series issued from 1978 to 1990, a collection of death clips, some fake, some real, of humans and animals alike. The jacket blurb for the 1988 "Death Faces" highlights the appeal of the genre: "This is not movie fantasy. This is hideously, horrifyingly real!"
Perhaps, in the age of computer graphics and forensic special effects, death validates what is happening on screen, serving as a kind of morbid money shot. No wonder a kindred pathology has seeped into popular entertainment, the prospect of a murder staged especially for the camera.
Thus far only apocryphal, thankfully, the existence of the "snuff film" haunts the underside of self-reflexive Hollywood cinema. From Paul Schrader's "Hardcore" (1976), a descent into the porno trade that climaxes with thanatos not eros, to the like-themed thriller "8MM" (1999), the entertainment industry inches toward the most extreme, or most logical, extension of the society of the spectacle. "Fifteen Minutes" is currently teasing audiences with the tagline: "America likes to watch."
A preview of coming attractions, if not for Timothy McVeigh then for some future American killer, was telecast on Nov. 22, 1998, by the esteemed CBS newsmagazine "60 Minutes." While reporter Mike Wallace delivered minute-by-minute commentary, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, live on videotape, killed Thomas Youk, a patient suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease.
As Mr. Youk's life seeped away before our eyes, the trademark "60 Minutes" stopwatch and tick-tick-tick on the soundtrack seemed eerily appropriate. "Is he dead now," asked Mike Wallace for all of us, seeking to freeze just the right frame, to capture on screen not life and death, but the moment in between.
Thomas Doherty is chair of the Film Studies Program at Brandeis University
Badger Herald, University of Wisconsin, 2001-02-23
Seen anything good on TV lately? How about an execution? Last year 85 death-row inmates were executed with poison gas, electric current or a lethal syringe. In each case, only a handful of witnesses saw the inmate die.
Public execution has been banned in the United States since 1937. Despite the upsurge in executions since the 1970's, the death penalty has
therefore remained out of sight and out of mind. The ultimate penalty a society can impose carries on quite anonymously, slipping through our crowded minds. Death, to put it semi-redundantly, has become a silent killer.
Imagine what would happen, then, if executions went public. Death, live on the air. CNN updates. FOX News commentators. That may sound repugnant, but closed-door executions are morally indefensible. As citizens, we have
the right to know exactly what our government is doing. Trials are open to the public; why not executions? The administration of death by state agencies should be open to public scrutiny.
Though most Americans are currently in favor of the death penalty, they are not in favor of public execution. But open execution follows from the major arguments for the death penalty - that it deters, and that it upholds the sanctity of human life. Theoretically, for executions to do either effectively they must be public.
The real question is why shouldn't executions be open to the public? What exactly is there to hide? Surely the death penalty is the gold standard of our system of justice. Why doesn't the American system of justice, so fair and error-proof that it can even use the death penalty, put its prize tool on display?
Simple - because the application of the death penalty is itself morally
indefensible. It is cruel and unfair. Wrongful convictions, lawyers who sleep through trials in which their clients' lives are at stake, selective and opportunistic prosecution and race and class bias all combine to make the death penalty a terrible lottery, stacked against the
most marginal members of society.
So let's see just how "just" state killing is. Let's see if the death penalty upholds the sanctity of human life when we watch an inmate die in
front of our eyes. Though it may turn their stomachs, opponents of capital punishment should be all for it. If executions were made public in the United States, the death penalty would not survive.
Americans are not a brutal people. Take it from a foreigner. Though it
may take some time to get their attention, Americans ultimately cannot stand cruelty or barbarity. The non-violent revolution of the civil-rights movement succeeded by exposing the ferocious brutality of segregation to the public. Americans watched civil-rights marchers being viciously beaten on their TV screens and were horrified. The tension between a just and free America and violent oppression was too much for the national psyche to bare.
Images of the bloody Tet Offensive in 1968 eroded public support for the
Vietnam War. The Pulitzer-prize-winning photo of a small Vietnamese girl running screaming towards the camera, as napalm burns away her skin, shocked people deeply and symbolized everything that was wrong with America's "police action."
In today's media-dominated world, public opinion is even more crucial than before. Americans are opposed to the death penalty. They just don't know it yet.
But for a death penalty opponent to support public execution presents a dilemma. One of the major criticisms opponents make is that the deterrent argument for the death penalty is immoral. It violates the Kantian interdiction to never use a person solely as a means to an end. To support the public execution of current inmates as a means of eventually abolishing the death penalty, or deterring future executions, skirts the same immoral territory.
Supporting public execution, however, is not the same as supporting execution. Opponents should do everything they can to prevent the execution of each inmate. Public execution would shed light on the merits of each case. It would force the system to justify each killing.
Questions, such as why a black person who kills a white person goes to the chair so much more often, would ring in the ears of execution's executors.
Public scrutiny brings public pressure. Executions would, at the very least, have to be more humane. Authorities could ill-afford botched and painful executions. They could not afford to let the viewing public see flames shoot from an inmate's head in the electric chair, or blood pour from his mouth.
The movement towards more 'humane' forms of execution, such as lethal injection, is itself a response to moral qualms about the death penalty.
Supporters are already at pains to prove that execution is not cruel. For cruelty would equal injustice. But if the death penalty is so just, it cannot be cruel. It can either be just or barbaric; it cannot be both.
However sanitized a form of execution lethal injection might be, most viewers would still find the sight of someone slowly being poisoned to death barbaric. Imagine the screams of a man being dragged to his death.
Imagine him being strapped to a cold metal platform. Imagine that he may be innocent or that the circumstances of his selection for death were grossly unfair.
The death penalty's day in the court of public opinion is long overdue.
It is impossible to argue the death penalty is moral and civilized, and then say it should not be public. Is it civilized to put people to death, but not civilized to watch them die? Let's see just how clean and humane putting a human being to death can be.
Only when we can all watch will we be able to ask whether a civilized
country can use an execution system that preys on the weak, the poor and those of darker skin; a death machine that processes the innocent as well as the guilty.