For half a century, we've been watching rituals of retribution.
Countless entertainment shows on TV have presented certain vengeance as
dramatic justice. In time for the last commercial, the designated bad guys
got what was coming to them.
These days, news coverage -- or what passes for it -- tends to
edge out fictional concoctions. The surfaces of pathos, anguish and
suffering are readily available without scripts, actors or set designers.
Around the country, local news programs air plenty of crime sensations with
yellow police tape in the background. Cable channels strive to offer the
latest shootings in progress. And trials can't miss: Inside a courtroom,
everyone makes a perfect cameo appearance.
A week before the scheduled execution of Timothy McVeigh, the
major cable networks -- CNN, Fox and MSNBC -- could hardly tear themselves
away from the spectacle of a 14-year-old boy as he testified about what
happened when he shot a teacher, taking an adult's life and shattering his
own. The camera work and sound quality were crystal clear.
McVeigh's crime, we're told, was the deadliest act of terrorism
ever on U.S. soil. Among the 168 people he killed were 19 young children.
From prison, he has insisted on describing the kids he murdered as
"collateral damage." It's a phrase that disturbed some media consumers a
decade ago, during the Gulf War, when it was the euphemism of choice for
top Pentagon officials and many American reporters.
In a recent statement to a Fox News Channel correspondent, McVeigh
said: "Collateral damage? As an American news junkie, a military man, and a
Gulf War veteran, where do they think I learned that?"
Unrepentant and preferring to undergo capital punishment now
rather than later, McVeigh has declined to appeal his death sentence, a
move that would have delayed his execution for years. He expresses no
remorse about setting off a bomb at the federal building in Oklahoma City.
Explaining his motives to the authors of a new biography, McVeigh
commented: "I did it for the larger good." With more diplomatic language,
that's the sort of remark that U.S. officials frequently made during the
If McVeigh were black or brown instead of white -- and if he had
grown accustomed to the idea of inflicting lethal violence as a member of a
gang instead of as a member of the U.S. Army -- it's a safe bet that news
media would have flooded us with feature reports, analysis and commentaries
about the inner-city culture of violence and pathology that produced him.
But in McVeigh's case, we're made to understand that he was a bad apple in
a wholesome barrel overseen by Uncle Sam. The good apples, the ones we can
all be proud of, understood that killing is laudable only when authorized.
And now, it has been authorized in Terre Haute. During the days
before his execution in that Indiana city, T-shirts with his face on them
have been selling briskly. A simple message is printed on those souvenir
shirts: "Die, die, die."
Long ago, Bertrand Russell observed: "The reformative effect of
punishment is a belief that dies hard, chiefly, I think, because it is so
satisfying to our sadistic impulses."
The slaying of Tim McVeigh promises to be an unprecedented pageant
of capital punishment. Advance stories predict that 2,000 journalists will
descend on Terre Haute for the festivities.
In Newsweek's words, the execution "will be shown on
closed-circuit television to several hundred victims of the Oklahoma City
bombing and their families -- the biggest crowd to watch an execution since
the 1930s." In theory, the audience will be limited. But some of the
viewers will surely be on national TV to describe what they saw. Bootlegged
videos are likely to find their way to a wider audience.
If "we," ostensibly represented by the state, are going to kill
with premeditated executions, then we may as well see the grisly results.
But why stop there?
A lot of babies perish due to social conditions that could be
prevented by a shift in government priorities. For the first time in a
quarter-century, the latest annual figures tell us, infant mortality rates
have not dropped in the United States -- remaining at 7.2 infants per 1,000
births. Meanwhile, the Children's Defense Fund says, 10.8 million of the
nation's children are lacking health insurance.
Unfortunately, there's no media frenzy to cover what happens when
the state, in effect, routinely kills many Americans simply by inaction --
not enforcing workplace-safety rules, or not reducing air pollution that
menaces people chronically short of breath, or not providing health care
for the uninsured.
With the corporate-dominated state functioning as a serial killer
every day, news outlets should shine a bright light on its innocent victims.
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His
syndicated column focuses on media and politics.