Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

It is a telling measure of the crime of Timothy McVeigh, due to be put to death May 16, that the execution chamber at the Indiana federal prison where he will meet his maker just isn’t big enough.

What with 168 dead and more than 500 wounded in the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, there isn’t room in the spectator gallery for all who want to witness the state take vengeance in their name. The solution under consideration: a closed-circuit broadcast so the thousand or so interested parties can experience much sought-after closure.

Quicker than you can say “reality TV,” the prospect of a camera at McVeigh’s execution opened the possibility that the nation might witness the mass murderer put to death.

Thus far, prison officials in Indiana won’t hear of it. A televised execution of McVeigh is not under consideration, they say. They do not want to turn an act of bureaucratic justice into the frenzied media event Dead McVeigh—Live! would surely be.

Which makes executions a strange anomaly in a culture otherwise dedicated to giving people the entertainment they crave. Executions cannot be televised because we’re afraid too many people want to watch them.

But May is a long way off, and the voices urging an execution broadcast (including McVeigh’s) are growing louder. They argue McVeigh’s self-fulfilling act—in the end he became the enemy of the state he imagined himself to be—was directed not only at his victims, but at the country.

True, we may not have relatives among the dead and wounded, or have come any closer to Oklahoma City than a flight from Boston to Dallas. But in a larger sense, as undertaker and author Thomas Lynch asked in a thoughtful op-ed piece in The New York Times, didn’t the bombing happen to us all?

Well no, it didn’t. No more than NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash last week happened to all of us. Both were shocking, unexpected, saddening events that we watched on TV with—let’s admit it—a certain amount of ghoulish fascination.

Still, having sat glued to the tube during the grim days of sifting through the rubble, some feel entitled to watch the bombing’s final episode.

Besides, the media saw fit to run the video of Earnhardt’s last moments captured by the camera mounted in his car—in what seemed like an endless loop in the aftermath of his death. And that was a meaningless accident.

So why can’t the public see a death burdened with the meaning of 168 lost lives? Lynch argues that if we the people are willing to sanction capital punishment, shouldn’t we be allowed—if not obligated—to see how the people’s justice is done?

Unlike the authorities that insist there will be no broadcast, Lynch possesses a flattering view of the polis. The powers-that-be believe audiences will tune in for the same voyeuristic thrills they get from watching tribe Ogakor choke down bugs and worms.

The undertaker, admittedly an expert on how the living come to terms with the dead, thinks it would be a cathartic civic ritual. It would not only inform our debate on capital punishment, he claims it will make us more humane in the process.

The history of public executions, however, tells a different story.

Far from being a civics course, in olden days public executions were big-time entertainment. What historical movie epic is complete without the danse macabre at the foot of the guillotine, as the peasants, chomping apples and swigging ale, carry on like tailgaters before a big game?

Along with the coliseum crowd drunk on blood lust in gladiator flicks, this is popular culture’s favorite nightmare image of itself. See, on the one hand, the pitiless, debased crowd, reveling in its cruel appetites. Witness, on the other, a cynical institution willing to indulge the basest impulses of the masses in order to solidify its power. Sounds a lot like the critics’ description of the XFL on NBC.

Because of the nature of his crime, the McVeigh execution might overcome the modern taboo against public execution. Certainly, there will be little about the procedure to fever the blood. Condemned to die by lethal injection, McVeigh is essentially being put to sleep like a dog, a procedure that’s blessedly swift and undramatic.

But if Dead McVeigh—Live! actually makes it to the air, it won’t be because the procedure or the audience has become more civilized. It will happen because the taboo against public executions is doomed to crumble in a culture increasingly devoted to and accepting of surveillance, to watching and being watched.

The execution chamber may be the last private place in America but its days are numbered.