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.
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?