McVeigh’s request: Sharing in the joy of death

Elton Wong

Timothy McVeigh is sentenced to die on May 16 for the bombing of a federal building, possibly the worst act of terrorism in the history of the United States.

With this in mind, perhaps it is not surprising that this is the first federal execution since 1963. The execution will go forward because McVeigh has refused to participate in further appeals processes, accepting his death at the hands of the government.

He has not, however, given up total control of his future. His wish is that his execution be broadcast on national television.

While this wish is not likely to be fulfilled, Attorney General John Ashcroft is seriously considering a similar procedure.

Normally, the relatives of victims are allowed to view the execution of their relative’s killer. In this case, however, about 250 “qualified viewers” have been identified by the government, and only eight people can physically fit into the observation room that overlooks the death chamber.

Additionally, most of these people are located in Oklahoma City, far from Terre Haute, Ind., where the execution will take place.

Ashcroft is considering broadcasting the execution on closed circuit television in Oklahoma, so that survivors and relatives of victims can watch. It seems likely that this plan will go through.

McVeigh will probably not get his last wish, but the question raised is an interesting one. Why not televise McVeigh’s execution nationally?

Opponents of televised executions can be found on both sides of the death penalty debate.

Death penalty advocates worry that televised executions could spark public sympathy for the condemned and put future executions in jeopardy. Opponents of the death penalty claim that televised executions fail to portray the years of psychological suffering of inmates on death row.

To ask why executions should or should not be televised involves us in the question of whether executions should be held in the first place, and why.

There are some who hold that executing a criminal deters others from committing crimes. Certainly, though, this has never been empirically demonstrated.

In this case, McVeigh knew he faced execution when he left his van in front of the federal building. The entire culture of people who kill abortion providers relish the death penalty as a Christ-like way to die in service of God.

The “deterrence of crime” argument certainly has fans among legal theorists, but it is not very strong. I have never really trusted this kind of reasoning, because it seems like such a flimsy rationalization for a long-standing cultural practice.

The German philosopher Neitzche outlined a very interesting and relevant theory of punishment in his book The Genealogy of Morals.

According to Neitzche, early morality was divided into the master and the slave morality. The aristocracy had absolute power over the peasants, and they were not constrained by systems of “wrong” or “right,” because everything the powerful did was considered “right.”

Neitzche called this the will to power, and this is the basic system in which punishment was first practiced. Punishment was not done to deter criminals or because the wrongdoer “deserved” it.

Punishment was an exchange, where the wronged could “recover” the injury that had been done to them by experiencing pleasure in hurting the wrongdoer.

Punishment allowed even a lowly peasant to feel the pleasure of hurting, something normally reserved for aristocracy.

As Neitzche said, any kind of public festival, celebratio, or even aristocratic marriage was unthinkable without a public execution or torturing of some kind.

The act of executing was the definition of a public event, held in the market square or center of the village where people could gather. Any distaste that we as modern observers may associate with an execution was totally alien to these people.

The same is observed in the French revolution: Men, women and children would gather in throngs and cheer as the guillotine dropped.

I find Neitzche’s explanation of punishment, especially capital punishment, far more convincing than any flimsy deterrent or desert-based retributive theories proposed today.

Otherwise, why kill McVeigh? Why is it so important that he die instead of being locked up for life? Why are entire political platforms based on this issue?

The death penalty, for all the rationalizations we run it through, is still about the pleasure of those who watch. We may as well accept it. Hell, if you believe Neitzche, we should embrace it.

That’s why the execution should be shown on national television, not just on closed-circuit TV for the victims.

Preferably, it should happen in the evening so people can watch it. After all, why should the government be ashamed to let people see something it is perfectly willing to do?

If execution is a morally correct act, then how can the viewing of this act be wrong? As with every aspect of government, execution should not by shrouded by secrecy.

Benjamin Franklin said that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. If we all share the burden of taxes, should we not also share the joy of death?

Elton Wong is a senior in genetics and philosophy from Ames.