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Published on Wednesday, June 28, 2000 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune
Forget The Conventions --
Just Televise The Executions
by Matthew Miller
We know TV executives don't want to air those boring conventions, but how about a few juicy executions?

This should be the new crusade now that George W. Bush is slated to preside over an execution a week between now and the election. Delightfully, it's a two-fer. Televised state killings not only let death-penalty advocates face up to the logic of their position. They also (finally!) give those 24-hour cable chat fests a chance to perform an edifying public service.

Here's what I'm thinking. Most death-penalty advocates believe capital punishment is a deterrent, meaning that the prospect of being put to death themselves (as opposed to spending life in prison without parole) persuades bad guys not to kill. I don't buy this, but one thing is clear: A deterrent is only as good as the degree to which it is publicized.

If the precise consequences aren't known in all their gory detail, how can they deter? "One must kill publicly," wrote Albert Camus in "Reflections on the Guillotine," "or confess that one does not feel authorized to kill."

But unlike, say, China (where group executions in stadiums or parade grounds have been common), we don't have the courage of our convictions. We execute criminals in isolated chambers, with only a few officials, chaplains and maybe Bianca Jagger present. These witnesses say such events fill them with shame and horror.

Now, though, thanks to modern media technology, no American need go undeterred. "Reality" and "voyeuristic" shows are in vogue anyway: What's more "real" or voyeuristic than this? To drive ratings, cable programs usually have to make inconsequential events seem earth-shattering. Here, instead, they'd be shining ceaseless light on a state activity that may generate outrage only through sustained exposure.

It's the perfect melding of medium and message. Instead of "White House Sexcapades" we'd have "Execution of the Week," with a dark little theme song all its own.

To be sure, all death-penalty foes don't buy my argument. Mike Farrell, the actor (he played B.J. Honeycutt on the hit series "MASH") and chairman of Death Penalty Focus, told me "Death Penalty TV" could do more harm than good.

"The diluted impression people get through their television screen would allow people to accept it and rationalize it," Farrell fears. "It will simply become another event that people shake their heads about, and go on with their lives."

Maybe Farrell's right, but I think there's a stronger chance that a steady televised diet of state-sponsored vengeance would turn our national stomach. Even the spectacle of today's "kinder, gentler" executions -- in which the prisoner is dragged from his cell, strapped on a gurney and then put down like an animal with a lethal injection -- might so horrify people that they would call on officials to end this monstrosity being performed in their name.

At the very least, it's impossible for principled death-penalty champions to reject this idea. After all, by their logic, the higher the ratings, the faster the drop in the murder rate.

Assume we'd kill the murderers after the kids have gone to sleep. Then ask yourself: If you or a death-penalty supporter you know still shuns televised executions as somehow unseemly, doesn't that tell us all we need to know about how the entire enterprise diminishes our humanity?

Copyright 2000 Star Tribune


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