Watch the Killer Get Killed

Posted: Apr 25, 2001 12:00 AM
If attitudes, let alone rules, can be said to have been formulated at the dinner seminar, these would be they:

(1) Nobody is saying that Timothy McVeigh is the wrong guy. There is no outstanding legal appeal in his case save from the inventive mind of abolitionists, and what they would say is one or another form of: Capital punishment is wrong, and therefore shouldn't be inflicted on anybody. Anybody includes, though just barely, Timothy McVeigh.

(2) That his upcoming execution (May 16) sets a few records is interesting for data collectors, but not, really, for moralists. The last public execution was in 1936 in Owensboro, Ky., at the expense of one Rainey Bethea. The hanging was public, the spectators numerous (approximately 15,000), and the public reaction was such as to end public executions. The presiding official (he didn't want to be called a hangman because he winced at pulling the trigger: He made other people do that) had officiated at 70 other executions, not so many in contrast with the hangman at Nuremberg, who had done more than 400.

The other record is that there have been no federal executions since 1963. They were dragged to a near-halt by the Supreme Court, which, however, relicensed them, under specified circumstances, in Furman vs. Georgia, 1972.

(3) If public executions are de facto and in most states de jure outlawed, how is it that this one will be viewed by so many? Well, the jurisdiction is federal, and the situation is pretty well unique and, one hopes, will never be matched: 168 victims.

The tradition is long-lived that next of kin of victims may appear as witnesses at an execution. Why? Because they want whatever satisfaction is to be got from seeing effective retribution -- they see the killer killed. And then there is the touch of formality. Even as a doctor is there to record a death, and a marshall to sign a redundant death certificate, actually to see the killer die gives punctuational satisfaction to some people who want more merely than to read about it.

(4) Are there special circumstances, then, in the matter of Terre Haute, Ind.? Yes. The facility there provides room for about 30 witnesses. When word got out that 10 survivors and relatives of victims might arrange to witness the act, authorities were stunned to come upon 250 requests. Obviously these needed either to be denied or to be obliged after making special arrangements.

Such special arrangements were doable in the age of closed-circuit television. Many kinfolk wish to be nearer to the site of death and will travel to Terre Haute. Their arrival there becomes a public problem only in respect of arranging the television circuits to wherever they are. There will, of course, be the investigative reporter's anxiety to tap into the scene, for possible viewing by a larger audience. Federal authorities intend to make this difficult, but may not altogether succeed.

(5) If the larger public gets to view the scene, how much psychological damage is done? Is it to be compared with a snuff film? A snuff film is a movie of someone willing to be killed for whatever mysterious satisfaction he takes from it, satisfactions usually reserved for unborn babies. Snuff films are illegal in the United States because you can't have somebody be killed without somebody acting out the role of killer, and that is illegal. (Whether it should be illegal to import a snuff film is something even the ACLU is undecided on.) It simply isn't clear whether a contraband airing of the McVeigh scene would bring down the hounds of justice. Mike Wallace survived airing one of Kevorkian's killings.

(6) Have we learned anything about McVeigh that advances our perpetual search for causes of aberrant behavior? He says about himself that he was animated primarily by the fate of the Branch Davidians who were unquestionably victims of reckless federal action by Janet Reno's commandos. On the question whether his sensibilities are normal, some note was taken of the interview he gave two weeks ago in which, confronted with the number of day-care children killed by his bomb, he expressed only curiosity (mild) that the question should have been raised, not that the children were killed.

The consensus of the seminar was that we did not object to those who put in to view the execution, though most of us would not, in similar circumstances, have asked to be present.