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Jewish World Review April 18, 2001/ 25 Nissan 5761

Wesley Pruden

Wes Pruden
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Consumer Reports

Opening the door on a grisly spectacle

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- TIMOTHY McVeigh is a monster, and, as monstrous as the Oklahoma City bombing was, the final act of his life may turn out to be his most monstrous deed of all.

His execution, to be televised (if only on a closed circuit), surely opens the door to making state-sanctioned killing the stuff of Entertainment Tonight.

The families of the men, women and children killed in the explosion are entitled to almost anything they think will give them peace, and only the hardest-hearted among us cannot sympathize with Tom Kight's wish for vengeance and retribution. Mr. Kight's 23-year-old daughter died in the explosion. He is looking forward to watching Timothy McVeigh ride the needle for robbing Frankie Merrell of her life and the Kights of the light of their lives.

"I hope it will give me peace knowing he will be eliminated," Mr. Kight told The Washington Post.

We can all hope that it will, but probably it won't. I've watched two state-sanctioned killings, one by electric chair set amidst the cotton fields of Arkansas and the other by firing squad on a squalid street in Saigon. Everyone who watches an execution comes away feeling degraded. Some of us come away disgusted. Others get over it.

Attorney General John Ashcroft approved the closed-circuit telecast from a federal prison in Indiana after a session with the families who want to watch McVeigh die. Mr. Ashcroft, who has a heart rendered compassionate by his heartfelt faith in Christ, said the experience of talking to the families "changed" him.

Cracking open the door to the death chamber, however, will inevitably invite more pressure on Mr. Ashcroft, and the nation's governors and legislatures, to televise other executions, and soon not merely on a closed circuit. Indeed, certain television producers already argue that watching the state kill, live and on camera, is part of "the public's right to know."

Some anti-capital punishment advocates agree, and argue that the public not only has the right to watch, but should be required to watch. This, they argue, will so shock and disgust the public that a groundswell of public opinion will say "no more." They're probably wrong, too. The first two or three executions no doubt will shock, and even disgust, but after that the shocking power will diminish quickly, and it won't be long until advertisers will clamor to sponsor the show. The pharmaceutical companies, perhaps.

We've come a long way from the time when executions were public spectacles, when the church vied with the state to hang, boil, stone and eviscerate the evil-doers, some of whom were guilty of no more than picking pockets or hunting in the king's forests. Bishops and abbots tended their own gallows, under protection of the king, and monasteries had the right of judgment. The gallows was a fixture in many crossroads towns, and there was the famous story of the shipwrecked sailor who, on making landfall, climbed up a cliff to see a gallows silhouetted against the sky. "Thank G-d," he cried, "I made it to a Christian country."

The most famous of all English gallows was at Tyburn, in central London, and the festivals that attended hangings were merry and drunken. Spectators were encouraged not only to yell at the condemned, but to throw stones, and sometimes there was little left for the hangman to do once the condemned man's procession reached the Tyburn rope. We often see the spirit of Tyburn at the gates of our own prisons on execution day. The Tyburn carnivals ended when the land began to be developed as respectable Victorian suburbs.

Hanging was good entertainment, but real-estate values, as always, trumped everything else. Not everyone was pleased. "The age is running mad after innovation," complained the celebrated Dr. Johnson. "All the business of the world is to be done in a new way. Tyburn itself is not safe from the fury of innovation.

"No, sir, it is not an improvement. They object that the old method drew together a number of spectators. Sir, executions are intended to draw spectators. If they do not draw spectators, they don't answer their purpose. The old method was satisfactory to all parties: the public was gratified by a procession; the criminal was supported by it. Why is all this to be swept away?"

In our improved, modern age most of us no longer want to admit that we kill as acts of revenge, since that is thought unworthy, but to punish and to deter others from evil deeds. But since there is no persuasive evidence that state-sanctioned killing deters others, we are left with vengeance which we pursue with, well, a vengeance. The television producers are waiting in the wings, perhaps to call the spectacle "No Survival."

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2000 Wes Pruden