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 England, pickpockets were hanged in order to discourage others from such crime. The executions took on a carnival air; thousands would turn out to watch.
But eventually people stopped coming: even as one pickpocket hung on the gallows, other thieves used the diversion to work the crowd below, emptying the spectators’ pockets.
A second group, capital-punishment opponents, believes televising such violence would create a backlash of horror that would demand the abolition of the death penalty.
They cite as examples a Revolutionary War case. Several Marylanders who still claimed allegiance to Britain were charged with treason. Under Maryland law, traitors were to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Before a large crowd, the men were hanged and cut down while still alive. They were disemboweled, their intestines burned, then their bodies divided into four parts and left publicly exposed.
This punishment was so barbarous, it is said, that it brought about the abolition of hanging, drawing, and quartering thereafter throughout the United States. So, some argue today, wouldn’t the televising of executions, by its very violence, bring about their abolition?
I doubt it. There is a big difference between the good citizens of Maryland in 1775 and our situation today. In 1991 we are a nation that thrives on violence; and televised executions would only feed the appetite.
America’s fatal attraction is self-evident. Just look at the entertainment industry’s obsession with violence. As Newsweek recently observed, “It is not any one film or program that is singularly disturbing, it is the appalling accretion of violent entertainment.… And there is legitimate alarm at what all this imaginary violence might be contributing to in an increasingly dangerous real life.”
Newsweek cites one of the top-grossing (in more ways than one) movies this year: The Silence of the Lambs. The film’s FBI-investigator heroine is pursuing a serial murderer who skins his victims. To catch him, the agent must engage the help of a brilliant, deranged psychologist, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, in prison for murdering and eating people. In his cell, where he reads Bon Appetit magazines, Lecter is ravenous for human flesh. In one scene, he captures a prison guard and bites a bloody mouthful out of the terrified man’s face.
Having produced just about every version of explicit shoot- or knife-’em-up titillation possible, Hollywood has now turned to the ultimate perversion: cannibalism.
If this is America’s popular, mainstream entertainment, then I do not have confidence that public executions will meet with much revulsion. After Hannibal the Cannibal, would even the spectacle of drawing and quartering be so bad? A mere lethal injection or electrocution would seem almost clinical.
Consider the fact that today’s children, reared on television, have seen, by age 18, 40,000 people die right in their living rooms. In the event of televised executions, will there really be a distinction for them that the person on the tube this time is real? And do we want the type of nation, a generation from now, whose citizens have been brought up on both fictional and actual violence, and for whom neither elicits much horror?
The ultimate perversion of this steady diet of violence, to which some would now add publicized executions, is what it eventually will do to us as a people.
History demonstrates that an appetite for brutality can never be appeased. Saint Augustine told the story of his friend Alypius, a Christian convert who had determined to shun Rome’s bloody gladiatorial battles. But one day old friends dragged him to the arena. Alypius hunched in his seat with his eyes screwed shut. Suddenly, the crowd screamed. Alypius looked just in time to see one of the gladiators fall, covered with blood. He shut his eyes again, but popped them open almost immediately. Soon he was on his feet, shouting and cheering as the blood of men ran in rivers on the arena sands.
Director Martin Scorsese, whose recent films ooze with gore, has already made the Roman comparison, suggesting that violent entertainment serves a cathartic purpose: “Maybe we need bloodletting like the ancient Romans—as ritual—but not real like the Roman circus.”
If the U.S. turns to televised executions, then we will have our “ritual bloodletting.” But it will be very real indeed.
Eugene H. Peterson is pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church, Bel Air, Maryland, and author of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity) and Answering God (Harper & Row), both of which are about the Psalms.
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