Violence shall synchronize your movements like a tune, and Terror like a frost shall halt the flood of thinking.

—W. H. Auden, “It’s No Use Raising a Shout”

Should the United States televise executions?

Yes, says KQED, a public-television station in San Francisco. The station sued California for the right to set up camera crews in San Quentin’s gas chamber for the next state execution, arguing that broadcast media are better equipped than print journalism to record objectively the facts of an inmate’s final moments. While KQED lost the initial round in court, this issue is not going to go away.

Nor is it new. When the United States Senate debated the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1974, senators opposed to capital punishment tried to attach an amendment making all executions public. Radio and TV were to be used to assure a huge audience “at a time most likely to provide such exposure.” (This means that a prime-time show like “Entertainment Tonight” would be bumped, on occasion, for a special presentation of the United States Government: “Execution Tonight.”)

Sen. Harold Hughes argued that since capital punishment had in the past been exercised in prison compounds in the middle of the night, its supposed deterrent effect was negated by its secrecy. You want deterrence? argued Hughes in his inimitable style. Then put executions on television!

Hughes lost that fight. The death penalty was reinstated, but not as a public exercise.

America’S Fatal Attraction

Today two groups argue for public executions. The first, capital-punishment proponents, believes the death penalty’s deterrent effect would be far better served if the punishment was public.

I have always found deterrence a tenuous argument for capital punishment. In nineteenth-century ...

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