Skip to main content

Out of sight

On May 16, Timothy McVeigh is scheduled to die for murdering 168 people, including eight federal agents and a bunch of kids in daycare, in the Oklahoma City bombing. No, let's rephrase that. It is a federal execution, so we, all of us, are scheduled to put him to death.

It's easy to forget we are also responsible when the act is reduced to a few lines in the paper or a mention on the late news. The Mets won. Rain tomorrow. Texas executes a killer. We think it's time the public sees what it is doing.

The McVeigh execution is a news event-the first federal execution in 38 years for the most deadly act of terrorism on American soil. And while it might be a sickening event for many, that is no argument for putting blinders on to evade the reality of it. The Federal Bureau of Prisons does not plan to allow cameras but points out that nobody has asked to put them there. Someone should.

Just as the cameras have opened up the trial phase (most of us can now name at least one Florida judge), the ultimate penalty should see the light of day, at least once. Since federal executions are rare, televising this one does not open the door to a weekly reality series. And, in addition to its value as a news event, there is a potential public service element. Although the death penalty is legal, cruel and unusual punishment is not. Let's say the televised death doesn't go well. The gas takes too long, or the death appears particularly grotesque or painful. A few million witnesses might spur some action for reform of the process.

Activist groups are always complaining that TV shows the action, but not the consequence. The sex but not the baby; the bullet but not the bedpan. You can't get more consequence-oriented than this. Would it be gruesome? Yes, but that never stopped a driver's ed teacher from running Highways of Agony
or Alcohol and Red Flares
for a bunch of high school kids, sometimes right after lunch, to make sure they understood the consequences of their actions.

Of course, it's much easier to put someone to death when you can put yourself a safe distance from the killing. Someone pulls a switch or drops a pellet somewhere. The action is all off-stage. Television removes that distance and forces us to confront it. Just as it was hard to romanticize war after the images of Vietnam were in our faces in color on the evening news every night in the 1960s and early '70s, it would be much more difficult to discuss capital punishment in the dispassionate abstract after witnessing a death. No one should be forced to watch, of course, but we think any adult of voting age should seriously consider it.

Will some people take a macabre pleasure in the act? Yes. Will others be sickened? We expect so. But better to have our stomachs turned than to keep our faces conveniently turned from the truth.