National Public Radio secured audio recordings of Georgia Department of Corrections officials who were monitoring executions starting in 1983. (They got the tapes after a lawyer made an FOIA request for a client who is facing a death penalty case.) The tapes were recordings of phone calls from the prison where the electrocutions occured, to state officials in Atlanta.

On May 2nd on NPR, Talk of the Nation host Ray Suarez hosted a 1 hour radio program where he discussed the nature of these tapes, and played back the edited sequence of a man reporting on an execution of a person committed to death in 1984. Afterwards they had various people, including Mike Wallace and a representative from a victims rights group, as well as the former Attorney General of Georgia at the time.

It was a bit disturbing , yet not for the reason you'd think. The narrative was very matter of fact, almost emotionless, as the execution played out. Afterwards, there's a bit of tense humor over the phone as people are thanked for their efficiency and professionalism.

The question of public executions--whether they should be televised and available to the public was discussed. Wallace says, why yes, of course--it's a policy our government has, the people have asked for it, they should be seeing what they're voting for. The victims rights advocate was against it, saying televising executions would further dehumanize the victims of violent crime. The attorney general had the most interesting opinion, though--when asked what purpose executions served, his response was a very firm, "Retribution. Revenge." He didn't think it was a deterrent, or anything like that, it's just a simple way to get back at the criminal for their act.

It was a fascinating thing for NPR to do, both because I believe the tape should be public, but they also marketed it in a curious way, (the catchy name for instance, and the fact that it's May sweeps). And honestly, it's not a tape of an execution--it's a tape of someone describing an execution, which is in my opinion very different.

In addition to the broadcast on NPR, the tapes in question were also presented on May 2, 2001, by ABC's Nightline, a half-hour, late-night news program hosted by Ted Koppel.

Koppel's comments on the tapes put an interesting spin on the issue of public executions. Some have long held, he argued, that televising executions would almost immediately lead to public outcry against the process, and then ultimately to their prohibition by the powers that be. These tapes, however, reveal a clinical, almost matter of fact process that might have a paradoxical effect: leading the public to believe that capital punishment was, in fact, not that cruel and unusual at all.

I must confess that I had not heard this argument before, at least not presented in these terms. Koppel, who in 1996 left the Republican National Convention early, against the wishes of the network, because he felt nothing newsworthy was going on, sat there with that stony face of his, delivering his argument with the greatest gravity he could muster. So I wondered, would being presented with images of a violent execution indeed lead to mass outrage and calls for a halt?

It was 11:30 at night, and my young daughter was rather tenuously asleep, but I couldn't help but bellow in laughter at this suggestion. Koppel must have literally been born yesterday, or at least never learned anything about human history to be able to believe in such an argument. One of the few constants I can see threading its way through the millennia of human experience is that people just can't get enough of blood and violence. I really only need mention the lessons learned from Roman history to make this point: why would tens of thousands of humans--men and women, mind you--sit in the Flavian Amphitheater day after day and cry for more and more bloodshed if they didn't want ever more?

Plus (and this point was made by NPR and several primetime network newscasts), the last public execution in the United States occurred in the 1930s, when it was still considered a good place to take your family for a picnic. Are we that much more evolved than the people of seven decades ago? (For the record, I also take issue with Star Trek: The Next Generation over this point--how many times did they refer to our present as the "dark ages" that they "evolved beyond"? Give me a damn break.)

I guess I take the view, not popular with everyone, that given the chance, mankind will descend to the depths of barbarity. But, then again, that's what makes human civilization and humanity itself such a compelling enigma: so many of us, every day, strive against our instincts and attempt to be in harmony with the human community, whether for religious, legal, moral, or other reasons. It is, in its own way, inspiring. But I'm not sure I would ever place a bet on the overall decency of the race.

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