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.