Recently, Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bomber Timothy McVeigh has requsted his execution on May 16, 2001 be televised for the whole country (or at least the state of Oklahoma) to see. His rationale is that we're all victims of his crime, we have a right to see his punishment carried out (and there was already a provision to show the execution via closed circuit TV to victims and their family members who wouldn't be able to see the execution in person.)

Should we allow this? Lots of things to think about:

Overall, I think it needs to be done. Like Seumas said, I don't think people on either side of the death penalty issue can fully appreciate their opinion until they've seen an execution--seen the state end life. If you think it's graphic, horrible, inappropriate, etc., then you think so because the act itself is--since it's the state doing it, it's already public, it's just now accessible to all. If you feel it's appropriate, and just, then seeing it should reinforce your faith in what is happening.
Medieval Executions

Getting away from the subject of modern executions for a moment, let's look at a little history.

Everyone who has seen the film Braveheart will be familiar with the execution scene in the closing minutes - the festival mood of the crowd as William Wallace is partially hanged and disembowelled. Such scenes were at one time commonplace - public execution was a popular spectacle in many places. Tyburn and Newgate gaol were popular venues in London, with many people paying for a good view of the proceedings, and entertainers and vendors taking advantage of the holiday spirit of the spectators.

In England, up to the 19th Century, most hangings were public - the tradition at one time being for the condemned to be dragged to the gallows on a hurdle, partially hanged (with no neck-breaking drop, simply being hauled up by the neck), sometimes also being stretched by having people pulling their legs. The victim would then be cut down before being either dismembered or disembowelled, all the while on display to the public, until the executioner, some of whom seemed to be "quite the showman", would raise the remains for all to see. This practice, known as being hanged, drawn and quartered, was generally reserved for more serious crimes, such as treason, altough some common criminals were also treated to it.

At the more recent, straightforward hangings at Tyburn, people of substance or nobility were offered a glass of sherry along the route at the George and Blue Boar, common criminals partaking of ale at St. Giles in the Fields. All the while, crowds would be jostling the cart or hurdle, either cheering them (as in the case of many highwaymen) or baying for their blood. Finally, the gallows would hove into view, and the prisoner would be introduced to the executioner, and would frequently tip the hangman and ask his forgiveness. Presumably, this was also a request for a quicker dispatch.

The common crowd would be pressing for a better seat, paying more for a better view. The religious would preach, hawkers would advertise their wares, the cut-purses seek to take advantage of the unwary. Finally, to the cheers of the people, the execution was carried out. The clean kill or the botched execution - all were equally welcome, and the crowds came back, again and again... this what we really want, and need today?

Thursday, April 12, 2001, US Attorney General John Ashcroft met with the victims' families and survivors of the April 19th, 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and decided to let them view the execution of Timothy McVeigh via closed circuit television. After his meeting, Ashcroft explained in a televised news conference, "My time with these brave survivors changed me. What was taken from them can never be replaced nor fully restored."

Now let's get a few things clear. I believe that what Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols did was wrong. I understand their motive, as they have expressed it, but I do not condone their actions. I believe that the tragedy of this incident has put a scar on the collective conscience of the United States, and has done psychological and emotional damage to inumerable citizens in ways that exemplify both extremes: well understood, and almost unfathomable. I understand that this was terrorism against the United States executed on a domestic level. I know that having been found guilty of this crime, the execution of Timothy McVeigh is his legal sentence, and will be carried out in accordance with federal law.

But I have a problem with this scenario. I feel that capital punishment should not be televised. Not in this case, not under any circumstances. And I would like to explain why I believe this.

<rant text_emphasis="excessive">

I understand that the victims' families and survivors of this horrible incident need closure. I understand that their emotions are like an open wound, and that many of them feel very strongly that viewing the death by lethal injection of Timothy McVeigh will bring them that closure. I am thankful that I have never had to walk a mile in their shoes. And my thoughts and prayers are with them as they try to find some peace and resolution to the horror which has changed their lives forever. Since I am not capable of empathy for them, I can only imagine the hate they feel for the perpetrators of this crime which has robbed them of so much. And my heart truly goes out to them, as they are in genine need of justice.

But to want to watch it happen... this is beyond my comprehension. I believe that the taking of human life is wrong, and the circumstances should not matter! This is at the core of law in every civilized society on the face of the Earth. I do not wish to digress into the volatile argument over capital punishment or even the ethics of war; while it is clear that I disagree with its practice, it is legal in the US and will be carried out in accordance with the law. I do respect the law, even when I disagree with it. But the US Government making arrangements to televise the execution is tantamount to opening a Pandora's Box. It is nothing short of pandering to bloodlust.

The execution of Timothy McVeigh will not be some secret, hidden from the media and denied by government officials. It will be the leading story in every newspaper and TV news broadcast. Everyone in the world that cares to pay attention will know it when this death sentence is carried out. The victims' families and survivors will have their closure, in whatever mysterious psychological way that begins their healing, knowing that the man responsible for their grief has been put to death. Their closure will come to them in the fullness of time just by knowing that it happened. What is it that makes them want to watch it happen? My only clue to this mystery are the words spoken by one of the victims' family members when interviewed about McVeigh: "I don't think that he's human." Which implies that real human beings aren't capable of committing unspeakably inhuman acts, and if they do then they somehow lose their humanity.

Well, here's the bottom line. He IS human. As terrible and ghastly as his crime was, and as much as we want and need to send a strong message out to the world about how we will not tolerate the thing that he did, and even as much as we are driven in our grief and anger to objectify him into a "thing" that is not of or like ourselves, he is still a human being. To say that his actions were insane might be fair and accurate, but he is still a human being. To wish him to come to the end that he served to the innocent occupants of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building is not beyond the understanding of reasonable men and women, but he is still a human being. To deny in our minds his humanity is to become that terrible thing within him that we most hate and fear. It is to become the irrational driving force which compelled him to his crime, in which he no longer saw the occupants of that building as human but as objectified "casualties". It is to become that which we are seeking to punish and destroy.

Putting this execution on television, no matter how limited the audience or how secure the feed, is setting a dangerous precedent. TV news is not speaking of this as the "only" televised federal execution in United States history, but rather as the "first" one, and they are dead-on in their analysis. Once this happens, it will be so much easier for it to happen again. And next time, the crowd will be bigger. And the time after that, the feed will be less secure. Following the federal example, states' executions (which are an almost daily event it seems) will become televised. And before very long, we will be repeating the grim precedent of history as we play passive participants in the bloody sport of public executions. While we are not being spattered with the blood of the condemned as we are standing around the guillotine or the gallows, as has been illustrated earler in this node, our TV screens will give us front-row seats in the comfort of our living rooms. And there will be those who revel at the chance to watch it happen, and who will cheer it on because it validates their beliefs.

Mass media has desensitized us to the gruesome acts of murder and the wanton wholesale slaughter of human life through actors portraying it as entertainment. We can watch heads being lopped off with swords and people's guts torn out through the magic of special effects and computer animation, and not have any qualms about it because we know that it isn't really happening. Being so thick skinned to this sort of pretend carnage makes us not even blink at watching a man lie on a table and be administered a lethal injection. For children and the simple minded of society, bombarded with killing on TV and at the cinema already, how are they to make the clear mental division between these mock deaths and the public presentation of a real one? (Is it any wonder our kids are taking weapons to school to have themselves a killing spree?) I am a taxpayer too, and while that might give me some right to observe this justice being meted out, it doesn't make it the right thing to do.

Here we all are now in the 21st Century, and the nations of Europe have overwhelmingly rejected the death penalty as a barbaric practice, having perfected it in all its creative forms over the last thousand years. As usual, America is still catching up, and will undoubtedly have its streets and cable channels awash with blood before the decade is out. Hell, the Republicans are probably buying shares of pay-per-view as fast as their checks can clear the bank. As an American citizen, I say this is wrong, but I don't have a TV talk show, an infomercial or a rap music contract, so what channel-surfing American couch potato would listen to me?


I would like to add to instantkarma's rather good and well-presented write-up on this subject. The only reason I even searched and found this node title is because I was listening to NPR a few minutes ago. On the phone they had a retired reverend who resides at the death house in Texas. Reverand Carroll is the guy that gives the last rites and counsels those who are to witness executions, who are usually the survivors of the prisoner's victims. He's seen many reactions to executions. Some people say that the prisoner didn't suffer enough, since lethal injections are supposed to be painless. Others say that seeing a man die did not in any way help with the grieving or rebuilding process. Many say the obvious, that what they've just seen cannot bring their loved ones back from the grave.

This man also questioned the issue of yet another execution whose popularity and media appeal have once again raised the issue of public executions. If we are required to legitimize the reasons rallying for public access to executions, we need to pay attention to men like Carroll, who have already seen what public executions do and don't do to the witnesses. Any person who wants to see an execution for the sheer shock and illusive gore associated with murder won't be given audience, but in truth, this is why people want to see executions. They want the killer of their loved ones to die in ways we cannot legitimize in our country. They want to see him beheaded, shot, pulled apart by lions. They want to see him suffer like they've suffered, even though no punishment, even death in any form, can equate their sorrow.

I guess I just wish people would admit their darkest side in these hours, that they would be honest with us as they are among themselves, in the kitchens and living rooms they sit in days before the execution. I simply cannot believe that the victims' families are not as evil in their thoughts for the killer as the killer was for their loved ones.

But no one, seeking to witness an execution, would list this in their plea, because they know it would be shot down; it would be the excuse the court is looking for to not show the execution to anyone. Even if these people sincerely believe that they want only to seek closure from the incident, witnesses to this act have already stated that, from their press releases after the executions, very little that just occured seemed to have promoted any healing.

These families are given something many other families who lose loved ones to occurences like freak accidents, drowning, floods, hurricanes, and other natural occurances are not: one person or a group of people onto which they can aim all of their hurt, pain, anguish, sleepless nights, nightmares, and harshest sentiments. Are they somehow better off because they at least know who caused their pain? I don't think so. Grief is dealt with every day, and it is best dealt with community, communication, and time. Nothing speeds up or ends grief; it is worked out in its own time, sometimes never completely leaving. That's part of life too. Anyone who has lost someone before it was believed their time had come deals with that loss as best as they humanly can.

I bet you anything that however the Timothy McVeigh execution is finally handled, the people who see it will not be any more affected (in a positive way that promotes healing) than if they'd just stayed home. It's already been raked through the coals in the media. These people have already probably been told and heard more than they care to, and if they think this last act will do anything to quench the fire lit from the first press release of the bombings, I have to say I don't buy it. If they want to commemorate their loved ones, build a memorial, if there hasn't been one already built (which I doubt). How can they think that by appearing for yet another press release that their loved ones will be any more remembered by the world than they already are? How can they trust that this will have any different effect? And if they do, aren't we simply condoning the act of dwelling on unchangeable facts, aren't we encouraging the lag in a natural grieving process?

As far as using public executions as a form of rehabilitation, I don't think that's a valid excuse either. It may have worked in the 50's or 60's, when violence wasn't so commonplace on the TV sets in our homes. Now it's just too late. We'll have to go back to thinking for ourselves and stop relying on images to sway us to the right decisions.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.