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Jewish World Review April 19, 2001 / 26 Nissan, 5761

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

McVeigh's execution show -- ATTORNEY General John Ashcroft has asked the media to refrain from becoming "McVeigh's co-conspirator in his assault on America's public safety and upon America itself."

Sorry, sir, but it's too late for that.

The confessed killer of 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing sought a big audience for his big exit and he will have it. Even if it is not televised, as McVeigh has requested, this execution is big news. The media are obliged to cover it. Media are supposed to cover their government in action, and government takes few actions that are more worthy of public scrutiny than this one.

Hard cases make bad law. So goes an old legal slogan. Sometimes easy cases do, too. Unfortunately, McVeigh's case makes it too easy for many of us to make snap judgments about capital punishment and how it should be covered.

If ever there were a poster child for executions, McVeigh is it. There's no doubt that he's guilty. The government has the evidence, along with witnesses and his confession.

McVeigh's crime is so heinous as to defy belief. His motives were treasonous. He bombed a federal building and everyone inside to get back at the government for policies he did not like.

His attitude is unrepentant and infuriating. He refers to the young children killed by his bomb as "collateral damage," a term he borrows colorfully from the Persian Gulf War, where he served in the Army. The Army was at war in the Gulf and McVeigh was at war against his own country.

McVeigh also wants his execution to be televised. That's as good a reason as any to avoid televising it.

I used to advocate the televising of executions. As an opponent of the death penalty, I hoped that seeing people put to death on live TV would turn enough stomachs to cause Americans to look for alternatives.

In this era of burgeoning reality-TV shows, I am changing my mind. Long before our better angels cause us to get rid of the death penalty, we probably would have copy-cat TV shows built around executions.

In the ratings race, who knows what might happen. Perhaps one channel would bring in the XFL cheerleaders to liven up the competition.

Another would hire that stern woman who moderates the new quiz show "The Weakest Link" to declare in her stern British manner, "You are the weakest link. Goodbye."

Such unsettling prospects help explain why Ashcroft is allowing only the survivors and the relatives of the dead from the Oklahoma City bombing to view McVeigh's execution through closed-circuit television.

They deserve to have "closure," he says. Offered as a justification for execution, "closure" sounds uncomfortably like "schadenfreude," the German word for the pleasure one feels over the misery of others. A lot of people don't get much pleasure from executions or find them to be therapeutic. That explains why many of the survivors who could view the execution say they don't plan to.

Such considerations also help explain why Ashcroft opposes opening that TV signal up to the general public. But he does not stop there. He also has banned in-person interviews with McVeigh. He does not want anyone to be able to "purchase access to the podium of America with the blood of 168 innocent victims," he says.

Sadly, it is too late for that, too. McVeigh has bragged about his need to go out in a blaze of self-styled glory. You can read it in a new book, "American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing," by Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck. They spent 75 hours interviewing McVeigh, among others. At one point he recalls, "If I needed to, I was ready to stay in the truck and protect it with gunfire until the bomb blew up."

Wal-Mart refuses to sell the biography in its 2,600 stores. "Most simply," a spokesman said, "we believe that's what most of our store associates and customers would expect from us."

Be not afraid. It's only journalism. It is Wal-Mart's right to refuse to sell what it doesn't want to sell. But information about McVeigh may help us to prevent tragic stories like his from happening again. If we prevent McVeigh from exploiting the public spotlight, that hurts him. But when that prevention denies information to the rest of us that can prevent future tragedies, that hurts us.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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03/29/01: The candidate who censored himself?
03/22/01: "Will Hispanics elbow blacks out of the way as the nation's most prominent minority group?"
03/19/01: Blacks and the SATs
03/15/01: The census: How much race still matters in the everyday life of America
03/12/01: Jesse is a victim!
03/08/01: Saving kids from becoming killers
03/01/01: Parents owe "Puffy" and Eminem our thanks

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