The State Closes Our Eyes as It Kills


Timothy McVeigh decided to end all his appeals after his conviction for the horrendous Oklahoma bombing. He has made plain he has no remorse for the 168 victims. As for the 19 children among them, McVeigh says they were “collateral damage.”

There are no colder crimes than those driven by ideology. (See Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon or, of course, the Holocaust.)

McVeigh did have one terminal request. In a letter published in the Daily Oklahoman, he asked for a “public execution.” His lawyer, Rob Nigh Jr., told the newspaper that McVeigh “is in favor of public scrutiny of government action—including his own execution.”

Added Nigh: “If it is our collective judgment that capital punishment is a reasonable response to crime, we need to come to grips with what it actually is.”

The Federal Bureau of Prisons rejected McVeigh’s last wish, and Attorney General John Ashcroft vehemently concurred.

On April 13, in a lead editorial, “Witnesses to an Execution,” The New York Times agreed with John Ashcroft’s other decision to permit “a live, encrypted, closed-circuit telecast” of the execution to be viewed only by families of the victims. There will be no recording of the telecast. Ashcroft has ordered that the showing be “instantaneous and contemporaneous.” No one else will ever be able to see McVeigh killed by the state.

When he was in prison, Oscar Wilde, though not under a death sentence himself, said that the days when he was aware that doomed prisoners were being led to the scaffold terrified him more than any others. By then, executions in England were held in secret, the last public hanging having taken place in 1868.

“They do well to hide their hell,” Wilde wrote.

The New York Times firmly believes that we should be spared actually seeing the killing of McVeigh that is done in our name. “Mr. Ashcroft,” the editorial said, “was surely right to bar televising the execution for the general public. . . . The very act of permitting television cameras for general public broadcast would make a cruel and unusual spectacle of the legally mandated sentence.” In other words, the Times, in its concern for our sensitivities, says we would be subject to “cruel and unusual punishment” if we were to hear McVeigh’s last gasp.

But the Eighth Amendment to the Bill of Rights forbids inflicting “cruel and unusual punishments” on prisoners, not the general public. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan often told me of his hope that this country would eventually become civilized enough to abolish the “cruel and unusual punishment” that will be administered to McVeigh on May 16.

The New York Times is opposed to capital punishment. What it fears is that “by publicly televising Mr. McVeigh’s execution, broadcasters would be showing the very kind of act—the taking of human life—for which Mr. McVeigh is being executed.”

That is precisely the reason we the people should see the state taking this human life.

However, The New York Times insists that “the telecast would appeal to the basest instincts of the viewing public, and would inevitably coarsen our society.”

What coarsens our society is the state taking human life in secret.

In July of last year, U.S. District Judge Vaughan Walker of the Northern District of California ruled—in an important First Amendment decision—that the news media should be permitted to witness executions from “the moment the condemned enters the execution chamber through to, and including, the time the condemned is declared dead.”

Until then the few reporters allowed in the death chamber could not see the entire procedure. Corrections officials argued that the execution process is lengthy and would expose the identities of all those involved in the killings.

Judge Walker also referred to the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.” He emphasized that a “punishment satisfies the Constitution only if it is compatible with the evolving standards of decency which mark the progress of a maturing society.”

Therefore, the judge continued, “The public’s perception of the amount of suffering endured by the condemned—and the duration of the execution—is necessary in determining whether a particular execution protocol is acceptable under this evolutionary standard.”

In the case before him, Judge Walker was restricted to ruling on whether the media—the public’s surrogate in the death chamber—should be able to witness the killing.

But Judge Walker—not being able to benefit from the subsequent advice of The New York Times—went on to wonder whether knowing what happens from the time a condemned man or woman first steps into the chamber until his or her last breath could lead “a majority of the public to decide that no method of execution is acceptable.” (Emphasis added.)

After all, we the people believe in open government. And since executions are performed in the name of the public, why should we depend only on indirect information provided by media surrogates? We should be permitted to see what actually takes place, step by step, when our government kills under a law that we could change.

As Justice Brennan said, an execution is “truly an awesome punishment.” If the editorial writers of The New York Times feel they would be “coarsened” by seeing the state kill, they need not watch.

We the people have been able to stomach television’s horrific images of victims gruesomely mutilated in wars—and some of those deaths have been caused by us. Should those telecasts also be prohibited?

As Albert Camus said: “One must kill publicly or confess that one does not feel authorized to kill.” He was referring to the state; and in this democracy, it is we who authorize these state killings—without the state allowing us to see them.

Is the state afraid we might become too civilized?