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The US Should Televise McVeigh's Execution or Abolish the Death Penalty

By Paul Leighton 

This column originally appeared in Newsday, 02/15/2001 Page A 47 under the title  "McVeigh's Last Request Should Be Granted." I'm not sure the Newsday title reflects my point: given the democratic principles of open government and our First Amendment, the US should execute publicly or abolish the death penalty.  

Copyright 2001 Paul Leighton. Permission is freely given to distribute paper copies at or below cost. All other rights reserved.

More on televised executions

McVeigh's almost televised execution: more info & background

OKLAHOMA CITY bomber Timothy McVeigh will be executed May 16, and family members of victims will most likely be able to watch it on closed-circuit television-the same system they used to view his Denver trial. McVeigh has suggested that he have a public execution by televising it to everyone, and certainly if there's an execution that should be televised, it's his. 

McVeigh killed 186 people and wounded hundreds of others, making him a better poster boy for capital punishment than relatively small-time serial killers such as Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacey. Because McVeigh aimed to send a message beyond taking the lives of his immediate victims, his was an act of terrorism. He tried, and many feel he succeeded, in harming the psyches of Oklahomans and countless other Americans. 

A broadcast would spread to a wider audience the alleged therapeutic effects and closure from watching McVeigh die, and it would provide an important opportunity to understand how a midwestern Persian Gulf War veteran turns domestic terrorist. 

Before being sentenced to death, McVeigh uttered only four sentences, including a quote from former Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis: "Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or ill, it teaches the whole people by its example." The remark exposes the possible results of a televised execution. Would it be a lesson about deterrence and how violence is intolerable in a civilized society? A lesson about how violence is a morally righteous response to violence? What lessons about American human rights would we teach to Europeans, who already view our executions as human-rights violations and have eliminated capital punishment, even for war crimes like genocide? 

By quoting Brandeis, McVeigh seems to be referring to government actions in Waco that ended in the deaths of civilians at the Branch Davidian compound-an event occurring exactly two years before the Oklahoma City bombing.  In a case involving government wiretaps, Brandeis wrote about the importance of the "right of personal security, personal liberty and private property" and penned his classic phrase about how the Bill of Rights conferred "the right to be let alone." To McVeigh, the government's laying siege to the compound and burning it to the ground violated cherished personal rights and also served as the example for him to level the Murrah federal building. 

McVeigh's lawyer says the convicted bomber is "in favor of public scrutiny of government action, including his execution." McVeigh thinks his execution will be an example of government overstepping its bounds, which Brandeis said "breeds contempt for the law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy-[and] would bring terrible retribution." The bearers of vengeance would be those on the survivalist right who see McVeigh as embodying Thomas Jefferson's quote that the tree of liberty must be renewed by the blood of patriots. For these self-proclaimed patriots, McVeigh is a heroic criminal. He will be a martyr because they see symbolic meaning in his attack on a government so corrupt and tyrannical as to have lost all legitimacy. 

Most Americans agree the government is corrupt, but no one sees blowing up government buildings as legitimate-not those who wanted Clinton impeached, not those who hate the Supreme Court for helping Bush steal the election, not even the Naderites or those who voted for Buchanan (on purpose).  Unlike many other controversial cases, future DNA evidence will not exonerate McVeigh, and the issue of a racist criminal justice system is absent because he is white. McVeigh's execution for hundreds of deaths and injuries is as legitimate as capital punishment gets. 

French philosopher Albert Camus wrote that "one must kill publicly or confess that one does not feel authorized to kill." If we cannot televise McVeigh's execution to the world and deal with all its implications, nationally and globally, then McVeigh's should be the last execution in this country. 

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Entertainment Networks unsuccessfully sued the Bureau of prisons for access to the video feed from McVeigh's execution

Televised Executions ] Televising McVeigh's Execution ]

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