A Slippery Slope to Public Executions?

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Catching up on movies some weeks ago, I saw "Sleepy Hollow" and "Gladiator" back to back, two nights running. It was a mistake. I dreamed for a week about severed heads.

That isn't true. I made up the part about dreaming. In fact, after the twenty-fifth or twenty-sixth vivid and spouting decapitation, after so many human heads wantonly struck off by the studio's tricksters of special effects and sent spinning slow-motion like Sputniks, I almost stopped paying attention. The images ceased to make their way to that part of my brain where dreams — and presumably, compassion — are conceived.

This is the mind's natural reflex of tedium and disgust, much like the revulsion and detumescence experienced after watching hard-core pornography for a little while. After you have seen the Headless Horseman perform three or four ride-by whackings, after you have watched Russell Crowe (Everyman, gone twitchingly postal) take off half a dozen heads, the instruments of human feeling shut down. You react to blood firehosing from a severed carotid as you would to the sight of a man spilling gravy on his tie. Whoops.

Many of those who had family members killed in the Oklahoma City bombing have petitioned for the right to witness the execution next month of Timothy McVeigh — to have it shown on a closed-circuit television hookup, so that hundreds of them can see.

We do not use the guillotine, so the families would be denied a vivid satisfaction; instead they would see someone in a white coat bend over an I.V. tube run into the strapped-down killer's arm, and — they would infer, because they could not see it — delicately squirt lethal fluid from a hypodermic into the tube, like a nurse giving a sedative. And they would watch McVeigh go to sleep. This is "closure"?

For justice to be done, it must be seen to be done. Yes.

But is this a road we want to go down? Is this the precedent we wish to pursue? Probably. There's a fortune to be made farther down that road, in televised executions — reality TV meets snuff. A visionary will see possibilities for the halftime show at the Super Bowl. Say, do you suppose O.J...?

It is not too late to reconsider. Does this Bluebeard's castle of a culture, this cable-ready 24/7 spectacle of the untrammeled Super-Id, which electronically firehoses its children with every vicious fantasy it can conceive, really wish to have its more lurid capital cases turned into media extravaganzas? If the McVeigh execution opens this video window, it will not be closed, and spectacular public executions will become a matter of the First Amendment and the Public's Right to Know. Maybe they are.

But the true death penalty for Timothy McVeigh and his kind would be quite different. The killers would not be killed. Upon conviction, they would be made to disappear, in the media sense: technically alive, but media-dead, allowed no contact with the outside, no interviews with anyone, ever, no books written about them, no prison manifestoes. The killers would be buried alive, would die in the mind of the world — a terrible suffocation.

The victims' families would have the satisfaction of knowing that the McVeighs (isolated, no personal effects, no television, no visitors, nothing except a cot, a toilet and enough calories to survive) themselves knew, until the day of actual death: that they had vanished from the earth.

McVeigh would be killed without achieving the vindication of a dramatic death, the media martyrdom that is, of all things, what such people desire, the thought that consoles them and sweetens their departure.

It is natural for the victims of murderers to desire to see justice done. But a new metaphysics of publicity skews and thwarts the justice process, and in a perverse way, vindicates monstrousness even when giving it lethal injections, so that the monstrousness lives on.

We should not be televising executions, even for the satisfaction of the victims' families. We should not be executing these people at all. Oblivion kills them better.