Execution as carnival

Will the televised spectacle bring closure for the victims' families, or will it be Timothy McVeigh's final victory over American society?

April 22, 2001|By Paul Finkelman

THE COUNTDOWN has begun for the May 16 televised execution of America's most heinous criminal: Timothy J. McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who killed 168 people, including 19 children.

Televising McVeigh's death will become the latest wrinkle in reality TV and it will surely raise the stakes in the capital punishment game. How long will it be before we're able to can watch executions in the privacy of our homes or at the local sports bar?

And will we ever be satisfied with another group of handpicked publicity seekers marooned on a desert island when we can watch criminals die?

In 1936, onlookers drank sodas and ate hot dogs when this nation's last public execution was held in Owensboro, Ky.

Recently, Attorney General John Ashcroft approved a closed-circuit telecast of McVeigh's execution for bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995.

Ashcroft's decision fulfills the requests of roughly 250 victims and family members who want to see McVeigh die. It also brings us closer to the time when it was good, clean fun to watch people beheaded, hanged or burned at the stake.

More than 1,100 victims' relatives and survivors were asked whether they wanted to see McVeigh die by lethal injection. About 800 said they did not want to see him strapped to a gurney and injected with poison. Some said they want him to die, but don't feel compelled to watch it, and others said they want him to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Ashcroft says federal authorities will take steps to prevent recording or pirating of the telecast. But it is reasonable to presume that the execution will turn out to be more public than Ashcroft intends.

Security experts say it will be difficult, but not impossible, to intercept and decode the telecast so it can be taped and sold on cassettes or shown on the Web. It might even wind up on network television. Imagine the ratings for McVeigh's execution during sweeps week.

Meanwhile, the lawsuits have begun. On Wednesday, a federal judge rejected an Internet company's request to show live video of McVeigh's execution over the Web.

The law barring cameras from executions was challenged by Entertainment Network Inc., a Tampa, Fla., company that made its name with VoyeurDorm.com, which allowed viewers to watch the daily activities of female college students via 55 Web cameras. ENI wanted to charge viewers $1.95 cents to watch McVeigh die in the execution chamber of the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.

"The Constitution does not require that those who wish to record courts or executions be allowed to do so," an assistant U.S. attorney told a federal judge in Indianapolis. "The legislatures of every state that has executions, and the federal government, have decided that executions should not be public spectacles."

U.S. District Court Judge John Tinder ruled that the First Amendment does not entitle ENI to broadcast the execution on the Internet.

ENI chief executive David Marshlack said an appeal was planned. "The law is on our side and applying constitutional precedent to this case, we should have won," an ENI attorney said.

More lawsuits are likely to follow.

Reporters will surely seek access to watch and record the reactions of those who see the closed-circuit broadcast at an undisclosed location in Oklahoma City.

Who gets to watch?

Meanwhile, Ashcroft's decision to restrict the telecast to victims' relatives and survivors has raised some interesting questions: Which members of the victim's families will be allowed to watch, and how many? Will grandparents, cousins, and in-laws get a seat? Will close friends be allowed to join them? How about co-workers and neighbors?

The execution is bound to be traumatic for some onlookers. So the government might as well save some seats for clergymen. Some family members will want to watch it with their ministers, priests, rabbis, or religious leaders. Grief counselors, psychologists, and social workers should be on hand as well.

And, if all these people, numbering in the hundreds, if not thousands, can show up, why not the rest of us?

Why shouldn't the execution be broadcast nationally? All Americans were deeply harmed by McVeigh as we watched in horror while the dead were pulled from the rubble. Let us all see his final minutes.

Televise the execution for public consumption, and let the entire world see how the United States deals with its worst criminals.

The Saudi Arabians will understand. They still behead people in public, a method more gruesome than sticking a needle in the arm of a man and putting him to sleep. The North Koreans, Chinese, Iraqis, and residents of various other benighted dictatorships will smile, happily noting that the United States has descended to their level of brutality.

But many in the civilized world will be shocked. No other western country allows executions. They will shake their heads in wonder that a nation so rich, so powerful, so seemingly modern, can be living in another age.

Frenzy in Terre Haute

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