Looking the death penalty in the face

Why the Oklahoma bomber's execution should be televised - and discussed.

Victor Rortvedt

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Topics Politics

I don’t often find myself agreeing with a mass murderer. But I have sympathy with the request by Timothy McVeigh, convicted of the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people on 19 April 1995, that his federal execution on 16 May 2001 be nationally televised.

According to McVeigh’s lawyer, his client is ‘is in favour of public scrutiny of government action – including his own execution’. Surely, if the first federal execution since 1963 does not warrant public scrutiny, nothing does. And is it democratic to shield us, the American public, from this supreme extension of the US state’s power?

A Gallup poll in 2000 showed that 67 percent of US citizens support the death penalty – a figure also employed in the popular US drama series The West Wing’s episode on this issue (1). But only a small few ever witness a state execution, and so it would seem that Americans are denied direct confrontation with this facet of their government. Even fictionalised depictions of executions, such as the film Dead Man Walking, which bring the death penalty to light for examination, are few and far between.

McVeigh’s case is remarkable both because it is a federal execution, and therefore representative of the USA as a whole; and because the condemned man desires to have his death witnessed by the citizens who make up that nation. Without the condemned man’s consent, televising an execution would be prohibited by the ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ clause. This gives the American public a singular opportunity to reassess our adherence to a practice that has been recently outlawed in the European Union’s Bill of Human Rights.

US attorney general John Ashcroft has allowed a closed circuit TV broadcast of the execution to be witnessed by approximately 250 relatives of victims of the bombing within the prison (2). In July 2000, a California district judge ruled that the news media – the public’s surrogate – should be allowed into the execution chamber for the duration of the procedure, from when the condemned entered the chamber until the coroner pronounced death (3).

Into these seeming cracks in the door for public witness streamed Entertainment Network Inc, which sued for the right to webcast the execution for $1.95 per viewer, the proceeds of which would go to charities benefiting the victim’s families. On 18 April 2001, an Indiana district judge denied the company the right to do so, but it will be appealing the decision.

Entertainment Network Inc’s plan, however, would bring the execution only to those with the desire to purchase the event, making it more akin to entertainment than public understanding. If such a precedent were to be established, the death penalty would take on more of the morbid popularity that already surrounds it, turning the issue from a matter of political debate into one of voyeurism and bloodlust.

Even if this company has a humanitarian aim, it seems to want to bring back the public execution, in all its macabre fascination with the suffering of others. For there to be any merit in the broadcasting of executions, the presenter must work to place the viewer in a state of civic responsibility – responsibility to their nation to witness, think over and come to a decision about the powers of the state.

Human confrontation with death is not always characterised by morbid bloodlust. McVeigh’s death merits a lens of civic engagement – one that assesses whether a humane society should have the power to take the life of its deviant citizens. The important thing is for officials, broadcasters and citizens to engage with and participate in their own governance – for if McVeigh joins the hundreds of others executed in the USA without any meaningful discussion about capital punishment, how can we truly claim to support this practice?

Over time, I hope that the USA will continue its retreat from cruel and unusual punishments and repeal the death penalty. But for now, it was disheartening to hear both George W Bush and Al Gore say in the presidential debates that even though studies show the death penalty is not a deterrent to potential criminals, they both support it as one. Because the truth lurking behind that answer is that if capital punishment loses its preventative validity, it only exists as an ultimate tool of state power for vengeance. And vengeful is not what progressive governments are authorised to be.

For debate about capital punishment to languish in the journals of the far left and far right is not indicative of an engaged populace – and nor is a 50 percent voter turnout for the presidential election. But the ultimate power of the state is an issue that should be firmly in the dialogue of its citizens, because it is clear there is an abundance of opinions, and Timothy McVeigh has given us a reason and obligation to listen once again.

Some facts about the death penalty in the USA:

Thirty-eight US states have reintroduced the death penalty since 1977. Nineteen of these are considering bills to place a moratorium on executions.

95 people nationwide have been exonerated from death row since 1973.

Illinois Republican governor George Ryan placed a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, noting that, since its reintroduction in 1977, 13 death row inmates in Illinois have been cleared and freed, while 12 have been executed.

During George W Bush’s governorship of Texas, 152 people were executed.

As of 21 April 2001, 707 people had been executed nationwide since 1977 – giving Texas, under Bush’s governorship, 22 percent of the total executions.

The academic journal Crime and Delinquency in 1999 examined a decade of executions in Texas and found ‘no evidence of a deterrent effect’.

A 1995 poll by Hart Research Associates found that only one percent of police chiefs believe that the death penalty significantly reduces the number of homicides.

The only countries in the world to place minors on death row are Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen…and the USA (4).

(1) Gallup poll release, 3 February 2001

(2) The state closes our eyes as it kills, Village Voice, 19 April 2001

(3) The state closes our eyes as it kills, Village Voice, 19 April 2001

(4) Death Penalty Information Center

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Topics Politics

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