Public Display of Vengeance No Deterrent

James Alan Fox

February 19, 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 living room 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. 

An in-chamber reporter could be on hand to get reactions from the participants. We could even get a comment or two - a final word - from Timothy McVeigh himself.

Despite the potential ratings bonanza, advertisers might understandably be somewhat skittish about sponsoring the telecast. Certainly the pharmaceutical commercials that we see all over TV these days would be most inappropriate during the administration of the lethal drug (bad for business). But then some fast-food chain might decide 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 speak with some authority that the mood is unwaveringly solemn from start to finish.

Most members of the viewing audience would find an execution by lethal injection less than breath-taking. There are usually 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, Ind. Pro-death penalty demonstrators would whip their troops into a frenzy.

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 United States 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 the movie character Hannibal Lector cannibalize his latest victims in the latest box office smash.

So cancel the telecution, get me to the theater and please pass the popcorn.

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