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Jewish World Review March 13, 2001 / 18 Adar, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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We should see McVeigh die -- ON April 19, 1995, he sent 168 innocent men, women, and children to their deaths. On May 16, 2001, at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., he is scheduled to be sent to his own.

Should we be allowed to watch?

In a letter to The Daily Oklahoman last month, Timothy McVeigh argued that the right to view his execution should not be limited to just a few witnesses. Nor should it be restricted to a closed-circuit telecast for a few hundred relatives of McVeigh's victims. "Hold a true public execution," he urged. "Allow a public broadcast."

McVeigh's opinion will of course have no bearing on whatever arrangements the Federal Bureau of Prisons makes for carrying out his death sentence, nor should it. His lawyer claims that McVeigh's interest in a prime-time execution stems from his belief in "public scrutiny of government action," but it seems equally reasonable to interpret it as an egotistical bid to build an audience for what he no doubt regards as his impending martyrdom.

Nevertheless, the point he raises deserves some thought. Why shouldn't his execution -- indeed, every execution -- be televised?

For most of American history, murderers were executed in the open. It wasn't until the 1930s, in a reaction to the raucous spectacles that public hangings sometimes became, that executions were moved behind prison walls. It would be more decorous, legislators came to feel, to put criminals to death in private, late at night, with only a few witnesses looking on.

But we no longer need to choose between openness and order. Television makes it possible to execute a criminal in a setting that is secluded and somber yet visible to millions. The public's right to know what its government is doing -- a right that is regarded more seriously today than it was 70 years ago -- can be honored without diminishing the awful gravity that is appropriate to a sentence of death. And surely it is proper that we know what our government is doing when it inflicts the most severe and violent punishment our laws allow. When the state kills in our behalf, the deed should not be hidden from our eyes.

It is impossible to predict how Americans would react to televised executions. Some would no doubt be disgusted by the sight; others would be enthralled. Some would find the images on the screen -- the prisoner strapped to the gurney, the needle going into his vein -- too repellent for words. Others would find them deeply reassuring. Some viewers would be entertained. Others would be bored.

Confronted with the sight of government agents putting people to death, would Americans find it impossible to support capital punishment? Or would they support it even more easily as they grew inured to the reality of it? Capital punishment foes have pressed the argument both ways. My own hunch is that televising executions would not change many minds one way or the other.

And even if it did, is it not better for Americans to make up their minds on such an issue on the basis of with real knowledge? The free flow of information helps keep democracies healthy; that is one reason the First Amendment looms so large in our system. Whether murderers should be killed or not is an old and thorny question. We will be more likely to work out the right answer if we know what we're talking about.

"The idea of televising Timothy McVeigh's execution seems bizarre and inappropriate," The Daily Oklahoman editorializes, because it would "introduce an aura of entertainment" into what should be a very sober occasion. But that seems implausible. No serious broadcaster would cover the death of a condemned man other than as a grim and solemn event. And it would not be difficult to make sure that only serious broadcasters were allowed access to the execution chamber.

Airing the death of McVeigh would topple one of television's last taboos, and thoughtful adults don't topple taboos lightly. There is no doubt that for some viewers, a live execution might be too disturbing to watch. But then, for some viewers the savage beating of Rodney King was disturbing to watch. The explosion of the space shuttle and the death of its crew was disturbing to watch. The fatal crash of NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt was disturbing to watch. The Zapruder film of President Kennedy's assassination was disturbing to watch. The tape of Dr. Jack Kevorkian giving a lethal injection to Thomas Youk -- aired on "Sixty Minutes" in 1998 -- was disturbing to watch. For better or for worse, television broadcast them all.

Just as, six years ago next month, television broadcast the heartshattering scenes of dead and mangled children being pulled from the rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Those, too, were disturbing to watch.

Justice will be done on May 16, when the man who butchered those children is himself put to death. It is wrong that he will die in secret, behind closed doors, as though his execution is something shameful. It isn't. The death penalty is how a just and decent society responds to murder. Society should be allowed to bear witness.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment on this column by clicking here.

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