Live From Terre Haute!
James Alan Fox

March 4, 2001

Timothy McVeigh's last request, articulated in a recent letter printed in the Sunday Oklahoman, is to have his upcoming execution by lethal injection televised coast-to-coast so that all Americans may be witness to his grand exit. Actually, his proposal is hardly a novel idea. Several years ago, former talk show host Phil Donahue attempted unsuccessfully to obtain permission to air a live execution (an oxymoron) on his television show.

Of course, those were the pre-Jerry Springer days, and America just wasn't quite ready for barbarism on the livingroom tube, even if it were state-sanctioned. But maybe now the time is right for an execution on TV. Perhaps we can do to capital punishment what the XFL has done to professional football. What's next, XTC, the Xecution Television Channel? Although the pharmceutical companies would likely be skittish about advertising (bad for image), some fast food chain might want to sponsor the last meal.

Notwithstanding the appeal of gallows humor, McVeigh's execution is, of course, no joking matter. Having witnessed a lethal injection some years ago in Missouri, the "Show Me State," I can say with some authority that the mood is unwaveringly solemn from start to finish.

If they were given the opportunity to tune in, for most viewers, the execution of Timothy McVeigh would be as disappointing as the quality of football on the XFL gridiron. As with the XFL, viewer interest and ratings would surely wane if there were a repeat performance.

Most members of the viewing audience would find an execution by lethal injection less than breath-taking. This method of execution is rather tame--an uneventful even--hardly the spectacle of, say, an execution by means of the electric chair, nicknamed Old Sparky for a reason. With lethal injection, there are typically no screams or shouts, just three seconds of dead air--far more hype than hypodermic.

The real show, however, would be in the crowd gathered outside of the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. Pro-death penalty demonstrators would whip the delirious celebrants into a frenzy: "Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Timothy McVeigh has got to go!" We might also expect to see some euphoric death penalty supporter holding up to the TV cameras a large cardboard replica of a syringe.

It has been nearly 70 years since the last public execution was staged in America--a 1936 hanging in Kentucky that attracted nearly 20,000 spectators. The circus atmosphere surrounding many of today's executions demonstrates that, if anything, our vengeful spirit and bloodthirstiness have grown worse since the 1930s.

Criminologists often point out that the U.S. is the only civilized nation which routinely uses the death penalty as a means for punishing murderers. Yet, witnessing the celebration--an orgy of vengeance--during and subsequent to many executions should cause us all to question the definition of civilized.

Public display of state-supported vengeance does little to deter others from committing vicious crimes. If anything it sets a very bad example. If the government eliminates its enemies by killing them, why shouldn't the rest of us behave in a similarly vindictive manner?

Sorry, Mr. McVeigh, but I doubt that an execution--even a real one--would be grisly enough for an audience clamoring to see carnage and destruction. They'd rather line up to watch cinematic character Hannibal Lector cannibalize his victims in the latest box office smash. Though fiction, it surely satisfies those dark fascinations with violence. So cancel the telecution, get me to the movie theater, and please pass the popcorn.


James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston and co-author (with Jack Levin) of Dead Lines: Essays in Murder and Mayhem (Allyn & Bacon, 2001).