The pre-execution debate over who would get to watch McVeigh's end and how eventually, a closed-circuit broadcast to victims' families was approved revived that perennial chestnut: Is America ready for a live public execution? A provocative question, and a nearly superfluous one. What we will see Monday morning will be a live public execution in all but the most literal sense. Some 1,600 journalists will be in Terre Haute, their tape recorders and cameras trained on the expected throng of demonstrators. Jane Clayson will be there; Katie Couric and Charles Gibson will be in Oklahoma City, along with a contingent of reporters set to talk with victims' family members. We will know the instant McVeigh's death is declared. And already, we are seeing and hearing his crime and victims and their life stories recapitulated, his final acts catalogued, the mechanics of his end detailed (an MSNBC 3-D graphic took viewers on a God's-eye tour of the death chamber, complete with a little digital lethal-injection chair), his interviews replayed, his remaining hours and minutes counted down.
Is America ready for a live public execution? We're soaking in it.
It will be a public execution with a familiar postmodern twist: we will be watching not the execution but the watching of the execution. (Unless someone bootlegs video of the closed-circuit broadcast, which the networks say they will not air unless, of course, someone else does, in which case it will instantly become news.) But this kind of metaspectacle can be powerful. The last official public execution, in 1936, became the last of its kind precisely because of media attention, not to the hanging itself of a 22-year-old black man convicted of rape and murder in Owensboro, Ky. but to the 20,000 mostly white Owensboro citizens who filled the streets, a "Roman holiday" that repulsed readers nationwide. The Bureau of Prisons knows this lesson well, having barred demonstrators from carrying frying pans or any other prop that might too gauchely convey that they are happy a killer is about to die.
Whatever the motives of the gallows crowds of old, they at least acknowledged execution as a collective act. Today it is a tribal taboo, a purification ritual that dirties those who come in contact with it. And just as the majority of Americans still agree that it is right to kill killers but don't agree on why (revenge? deterrence? respect?), we are also not certain why it is wrong simply to watch the deed carried out. Would it horrify us or make us jaded? (Or dare we say it sympathetic?) Would it feed our bloodlust or weaken our will to kill? Would it be cruel and unusual punishment or a reward?
In a way, it doesn't matter. Because on Monday morning we will still see that moment, even if we are not there, even if we turn the TV off. It will be in our minds, like an image in stencil, drawn sharply for us by its absence amidst all the matter surrounding it, all the more portentious for the danger signs we have hung on its perimeter. For most of us outside Oklahoma City, the terror of April 19, 1995 has faded; McVeigh himself, with his angry-white-male vehemence, already seems a man out of time. His case may be too singular to spur real death-penalty debate. But if this makes us tune out the pregame, it may make the moment itself more jarring. It is still a rare and godlike thing to know in advance the moment of a person's death to know that this man with this name in this place will be alive when you put the bread in the toaster and dead when it pops up a knowledge more awesome than any camera image.
Yet why? Death real, non-fiction death is no stranger in our living rooms. We've seen war dead and street dead, we've seen Lee Harvey Oswald shot and Dr. Kevorkian at work. Earlier this year, public radio aired tapes of old executions in Georgia, and the republic stood. Maybe there is something magic, incomparable, holy about the live, planned display of the moment of extinguishment. But maybe not. Maybe what proponents and opponents of capital punishment have in common is that they expect an execution the moment and the spectacle itself to deliver too much: too much revulsion, too much closure, too much reflection.
But there may be something more to this case. McVeigh's is the first federal execution in 37 years. It is the killing of a terrorist, who therefore by definition attacked us. So on Monday it will not be Jack Kevorkian or Jack Ruby or even the citizens of another state sticking in the needle. It will be us. Is it outlandish to think that a country that doesn't like to see veins in its fried chicken doesn't much want to think about that?
Perhaps after the clamor, reflection will slowly take root. Perhaps we'll just distract ourselves with the teary family stories and the umpteenth capital-punishment pro-and-cons. Or switch off Katie, put a CD on the car stereo instead of the news. And either way, mutter afterward about how the parade of talking heads trivialized a moment of national gravity, made it into another meaningless parade, another Survivor finale how this most intimate and public of moments was stripped of its chilling meaning. Yes, yes. And isn't that exactly what we will have wanted?