Bill Press: McVeigh to die on television
WASHINGTON (Tribune Media Services) -- Timothy McVeigh, convicted mass murderer, won't be the first person to die on TV. Rush Limbaugh did, before him. So did Dr. Laura. So have many other would-be Oprahs.
But now, thanks to a decision by Attorney General John Ashcroft, Timothy McVeigh will become the first person to be executed on TV. And that's a sick, new low -- for television and for our system of justice.
McVeigh is set to be executed by lethal injection on May 16 in Terre Haute, Indiana for the worst act of terrorism in U.S. history: the April 19, 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 persons -- an act which he admits planning and carrying out alone, and for which he has expressed no remorse. "I understand what they felt in Oklahoma City. I have no sympathy for them," he recently told the authors of "American Terrorism."
The problem with his scheduled execution, according to families of the victims, is that the death chamber's too small. Outside of reporters and prison officials, there are only eight seats for victims' witnesses: not nearly enough to accommodate the 250 people who told Ashcroft they want to watch McVeigh die. So the Attorney General has ordered prison officials to let survivors and relatives of those killed in the blast watch the execution on closed-circuit TV.
It's every TV news directors dream: "WILL HE RESIST? WILL HE GO EASILY? WILL HE EXPRESS REGRET? FIND OUT. WATCH TIMOTHY MCVEIGH TAKE HIS DYING BREATH. LIVE AT 11 P.M. ONLY ON EYEWITNESS NEWS."
Now, I agree, McVeigh is evil. He's the kind of man even a mother would hate. Opponents of capital punishment agree: if anybody deserves the death penalty, he does. But not even McVeigh deserves the indignity of having his last breath broadcast on live TV, closed-circuit or not. And we don't deserve the indignity of watching it.
One thing Ashcroft may not have counted on: once McVeigh's execution is seen on closed-circuit TV, it will never stay there. It will soon be seen on cable TV by millions of Americans. The first step, perhaps, to televising all executions.
Achcroft says he's allowing the unusual broadcast to respect the wishes of the victims' families. Wait a minute. This man is Attorney General of the United States. Does he understand anything about the law? No matter how grieved, families of victims should not be allowed to dictate public policy.
Of course, family members want revenge. They want to get even. Anybody with blood in their veins would. And some of them even crave the perverse thrill of watching the man who killed their loved ones die. "This is something I've wanted to watch," admits Jannie Coverdale, grandmother of two boys killed in the bombing. She says she's "elated" by Ashcroft's decision.
But, surely, revenge is not the path to equal justice under the law. Misdirected revenge, after all, was behind notorious lynchings in the past. Today, if we really want to feed revenge, why stop at allowing family members to witness an execution? Isn't that too tame? Why not give brothers or sisters the same weapon used to kill their kin and let them have the sheer pleasure of killing the killer themselves? No doubt, there are some sick souls who would jump at the chance -- and some sick law enforcement officials who would let them.
Or why limit families to watching execution by lethal injection -- which, if truth be told, isn't all that exciting. Shouldn't family members be given a choice? How about moving the execution to Utah, where they could watch McVeigh die by firing squad? Or to Florida, where they could applaud as he sits in the electric chair, with flames leaping out of his skull?
Ashcroft may have made his decision for the right motives, but it's the wrong decision, nonetheless. It undermines our system of justice -- letting passion, not reason rule. And it debases our most widespread means of communication.
In the early days of television, the legendary Edward R. Murrow foresaw both its promise and its peril: "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate, and yes, it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is nothing but wires and lights in a box." Broadcasting an execution makes television even less than wires and lights in a box. It makes it an instrument of sadistic pleasure.
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