IF THINGS GO according to plan, the execution of Timothy McVeigh will be carried out with all the drama and moral grandeur of a dog’s being put to sleep.
Next Wednesday, May 16, shortly before 7 a.m., McVeigh will be led into the death chamber at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. Outside the walls, a media circus will take place. Inside, however, the procedure will be bureaucratic, antiseptic, almost medical. McVeigh will be strapped down, and IV needles will be inserted into his veins. He’ll offer his last words. Supposedly he’ll recite an 1875 poem by William Henley that closes with “I am the master of my fate,/I am the captain of my soul.” But who knows what his final outburst will really be? This, after all, is a man who has referred to the babies and toddlers he killed in the Oklahoma City bombing as “collateral damage.”
Then the procedure will begin, so precisely calibrated not to offend modern sensibilities that the first thing to hit McVeigh’s veins will be a painkiller. Only then will the fluids that will arrest his breathing and stop his heart be administered. By 7:30 local time — 8:30 on the East Coast — it will be over. The worst mass murderer in American history, the stone-hearted killer of 168 people, will be dead.
The execution will be viewed on closed-circuit television by 250 of the victims’ family members, an arrangement approved by Attorney General John Ashcroft, who has said he hopes they can attain “closure” by watching McVeigh die. But even though the news media are sending so many people to Terre Haute that the hotels there have been booked for weeks, we won’t see McVeigh being put down — not unless a bootleg copy of the closed-circuit feed surfaces on the Internet (a Web outfit called Entertainment Network actually proposed a pay-per-view show), or someone slips a video to Mike Wallace, or even, as some have speculated, government authorities are forced to turn it over in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The invisibility of the death penalty is by now well established. The last public execution in the United States took place on August 14, 1936, in Owensboro, Kentucky. A young black man named Rainey Bethea was hanged in front of 20,000 people after he’d been convicted of raping and murdering a 70-year-old white woman. Bethea’s execution was the subject of a chilling oral history broadcast by National Public Radio last week, available online at www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/2001/apr/010430.execution.html. Since then, executions have become increasingly efficient and invisible. Hanging gave way to the electric chair, which in turn has been replaced almost everywhere by lethal injection. Public spectacles have been supplanted by private rituals.
But the pending execution of McVeigh — “the Charles Manson of his day,” as social critic Wendy Kaminer calls him in the current American Prospect — has raised anew the question of whether executions should be carried out as they are now — behind the walls, in front of just a few witnesses — or in public, on television, so that everyone can watch the ultimate penalty being applied. Because of the closed-circuit broadcast, McVeigh’s death, as the New York Times’ Frank Rich has observed, will be the closest thing to a public execution in decades. Should we make the final leap, and execute people on live TV?
The problem with this question is that it is really two questions, and those of us who oppose the death penalty are often tricked into answering the wrong one. We shouldn’t execute people on television because we shouldn’t execute people, period. Yet it’s easy to fall into the logical trap of arguing that there is something inherently bad about putting the death penalty on TV as opposed to there being something inherently bad about the death penalty itself — as if capital punishment were an immutable, unchangeable part of our cultural landscape.
I can find no better illustration of this wrongheaded thinking than a 1994 guest column for USA Today written by liberal media critic George Gerbner. In opposing televised executions, Gerbner wrote that broadcasting “the ghoulish spectacle of an archaic barbarism, abandoned by every other Western industrial country, is neither good reporting nor a deterrent.”
Here Gerbner has fused two unrelated ideas, focusing on the “ghoulish spectacle” rather than the “archaic barbarism.” The death penalty is a barbarism — an immoral response to immoral acts, a cruel, unusual, and arbitrary punishment rife with racial and economic biases. But we should not turn away merely because watching it would be ghoulish. In fact, as long as the government is killing people in our name, we should damn well be allowed to watch.
In the 64 years that have passed since 20,000 people turned out to see Rainey Bethea twitching at the end of a rope, the death penalty has been transformed so as to feed our own cultural need for denial. We can’t see it. It doesn’t hurt. It’s like going to sleep. Our thoroughly modern methods of execution allow us to support the death penalty as an abstraction without having to think about it too deeply or too long.
According to a recent Gallup poll, 81 percent of those surveyed said Timothy McVeigh should be executed, but fewer than 25 percent said they would watch if his final moments were televised. This is a shocking abdication of responsibility.
As Andrew Sullivan recently wrote in the New Republic: “A society that accepts this but will not witness it is deeply cowardly. In fact, no moral argument in defense of the death penalty is, to my mind, plausible unless an individual is prepared to witness the death he has endorsed. Being somewhere else when the trigger is pulled is a form of denial, of moral escapism.”