Attorney General John Ashcroft says he does not want Timothy McVeigh to “inject more poison into our culture”–a striking statement, given the method of McVeigh’s execution. Accordingly, he intends to deny permission for television interviews during the Oklahoma City bomber’s final weeks on federal death row. (The Oklahoma legislature had a similar purpose in mind when it passed a resolution condemning a new book about McVeigh–thus bringing it more publicity, as a dissenting legislator pointed out.) At the same time, Ashcroft has made a dramatic cultural intervention of his own, authorizing the closed-circuit telecast of McVeigh’s execution to perhaps 200 family members of his victims.
Both of Ashcroft’s announcements show clearly how capital punishment is coarsening American institutions. Although most of the press coverage did not mention it, the Attorney General’s diktat banning broadcast interviews applies not only to McVeigh but to all federal death-row inmates. However repellent the thought of a McVeigh TV interview, the ban is one more step in a repressive, systematic national clampdown on press coverage of prisons, which in some states, like Virginia, has led to a virtual blackout of inmate interviews. In the future, Ashcroft’s interview ban could deny broadcast access to a federal inmate far different from McVeigh, someone with a legitimate claim of innocence or discrimination–a real likelihood given the nearly 100 death-row inmates in state prisons exonerated by new evidence and the large percentage of capital convictions overturned for grave constitutional error in the original trial.
The question of a public telecast of McVeigh’s lethal injection is now moot with Ashcroft’s closed-circuit plan, though the drumbeat for public executions continues–with some support among notable death-penalty abolitionists and civil libertarians like Sister Helen Prejean and Nat Hentoff. Televising executions, their argument goes, would either sicken the public or at least make Americans more accountable for what goes on in their name. We disagree. We see telecasts of executions as a fundamentally different matter from death-row interviews. Today’s executions by lethal injection are exercises in the engineering of death, the institutionalizing of death, the bureaucratizing of death. Far from shocking America, viewing lethal injections through the distancing glow of a TV screen will further normalize state killing–as television ultimately normalizes the forms of violence it depicts.
Ashcroft did not invent closed-circuit telecasts of an execution–it has been tried at the state level–but it raises disturbing questions. For one thing, as several technological experts have pointed out, the phone-line transmission may not be immune to hacking or decryption–raising the prospect of a McVeigh snuff film in the near or distant future. More important, it makes this first federal execution, one moving forward even as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joins the call for a death-penalty moratorium, a spectacle of individual vengeance for McVeigh’s victims–a dangerous turn toward privatizing justice.
Far from shifting the spotlight to the survivors of Oklahoma City, Ashcroft’s decision heightens the perverse amplification of McVeigh’s voice initiated by his death sentence. The press spent the early weeks of spring speculating about how large a crowd would watch McVeigh take the needle. Instead of fading into anonymity, McVeigh has kept himself on the front page until his final moments and turned the chronicle of his last months into a testament for the militia fringe, who will make him a martyr. This is justice neither for McVeigh’s victims nor for the country–and that is the real poison seeping into our culture from the federal death chamber in Terre Haute.