By RAYMOND A. SCHROTH
In January when those who wanted a better attorney general than Missouris ex-senator John Ashcroft got hold of the videotape of a talk he gave at Bob Jones University, they hoped it would contain a smoking gun that would sink -- I almost said kill -- his nomination.
Alas, there was no smoking gun -- merely his proclamation that Jesus is Lord.
Last week, on Wednesday of Holy Week, I concluded my night class in the Ethics of Criminal Justice by reading the passion account from the gospel of Luke and let the class draw its own conclusions on how it fit into the course.
Among other things, they saw an innocent man who did not resist arrest. He was framed, tortured and executed to gratify a mob that enjoyed the show.
Timothy McVeigh is no innocent. He is a mass murderer who has been justly tried and convicted. And like every American who is convinced that he has not really lived if he has not had his five minutes on TV, he wants to leave this world with all of us watching. McVeighs letter proposing a public broadcast of his execution was published in the Sunday Oklahoman earlier this year.
Granting his request allows the moral distinction between him and the rest of us to slip away. It makes it look as if we are all just as bloodthirsty as he.
In Ashcroft we have a self-proclaimed man of God who is an embarrassment to Christianity. The smoking gun has appeared: It is his decision to literally make a show out of McVeighs execution, broadcasting it on closed-circuit TV to an invitation-only audience. It would be composed of 250 people from victims families, along with survivors of the bomb blast that tore apart the federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, leaving 168 people dead.
Viewing McVeighs death, the Christian attorney general believes, will bring closure to the grieving.
To no ones surprise, an Internet company, Entertainment Network, Inc, a producer specializing in voyeuristic reality viewing, has claimed a First Amendment right to show a pay-per-view live video of the death on its Web site, so you and I may enjoy -- excuse me, find closure in -- the spectacle. A U.S. district judge was expected to rule April 20 on the companys request.
Though most journalism students know the case where the New York Daily News photographer strapped a camera to his ankle to secretly snap the electrocution of husband-killer Ruth Snyder in 1928, common decency and the law have long barred cameras from executions. But, as some in criminal justice class said last night, as we discussed the morality of the death penalty, Of course they would want to televise McVeighs death. Everyone would watch it -- even though they know its sick. It follows naturally from Survivor and the reality-TV phenomenon it inspired.
So theyre running out of material. What do they do next? Execution and death.
Closure? Watching a human being die will make the rest of us feel better? Now the families of victims will miss their loved ones less? No longer haunted by the rubble, smoke and corpses of that day, they will conjure up the image of McVeighs dead body and find peace?
We have sometimes found peace in visiting a friend or family member in his or her last hours or minutes. But what brings the peace is our love, the final affirmation of our shared lives. To take satisfaction from watching another human being die, even one who is an enemy, is to diminish, pervert, our own humanity. And it no more purges our grief than a raging scream drains off our anger.
Ive read depictions of executions and taught journalists about them, but the closest Ive come to watching a killer die was reading my friend Mike Wilsons account in the Mobile Register (June 10, 1997) of the electrocution of Henry Francis Hays. Hays had strangled, cut and lynched a 19-year-old black man. The electrocution was not like in the movies, Wilson wrote. As the 2,100 volts shot into him, Hays body jumped and jerked against the straps like he was trying to fly.
His throat turned very red. His thumbs slammed into his fists. For two full minutes the voltage fried his brain and organs until the lifeless body sagged into the seat.
Young Wilson, who now works in Portland at the Oregonian, turned to Hays brother and to his attorney and embraced them both. If the embrace meant that he would no longer be sent to cover executions, it would be fine with him.
Why is it all right, a student asks, to read about an execution -- as in the forthcoming book on McVeigh or in Wilsons story -- but not to watch it on TV?
A good question.
Because the effect is, to some degree, determined by the medium. The well-written news story is literature. It engages us totally -- our imaginations, our moral and critical senses. Yet we control the experience. We put the book down to think, to weep.
Hays, whom I had never heard of before Wilsons articles, became human through Wilsons account. Like the director and film editor of Dead Man Walking, the journalist and his editor structure their scenes for effect. Both they and we know that they can degrade us with sensationalism or lead us to affirm life anew.
A live TV execution is no more art than a live tornado or car crash. One moment the prisoner is a curiosity, an entertainer. The next he is a corpse. It is lights and colors in a box in my room, which I watch with one eye on the screen and the other on my e-mail. This will be called reality.
Because of the way we have been conditioned to watch TV, though, it is just another show, no more reality than a sitcom. Click! Or MTV. Click! Or John Wayne on American Movie Classics. Click!
Or, now this. The evening news next May 16: Timothy McVeigh died today, executed for the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people, while survivors and victims watched via closed circuit TV.
Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth, NCRs media columnist, is Jesuit community professor of the humanities at St. Peters College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, April 27, 2001