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Virtual executions

Technology can make us all witnesses to state and federal executions. But what will that mean for us? Virtual executions Technology can make us all witnesses to state and federal executions. But what will that mean for us?

I have happened upon three accidents shortly after they occurred. Each time, I felt an odd mixture of relief and unsatisfied curiosity. I’d been spared the trauma of involvement, yet I wondered about the outcome–did those involved live or die? We’re all familiar with this curiosity. To see somebody die brings us about as close to knowing the unknowable as we can get, but it’s an experience that seems best left to chance. Timothy McVeigh’s demand to have his execution publicly televised, however, raises the question of bringing death as spectacle back into the public realm. Technology, too, is fast encroaching on this issue and will overtake it long before society decides whether to publicly broadcast executions. Someone may figure out a way to hijack next week’s closed-circuit connection that will broadcast McVeigh’s execution to relatives of his victims, and then it will likely show up on the Internet. It seems inevitable that technology will make the decision of availability a moot point.

But should executions be just another viewing choice? How does the medium impose itself on the experience–that is, does it remove us too much from the experience, and in so doing, does it remove the meaning? I’m not suggesting that publicly broadcast executions would sink to the level of a movie of the week in our minds, but how about to the level of the nightly news–real, but routine, and somewhat removed?

Last Wednesday I listened to WNYC’s excerpts from audio recordings of executions carried out in Georgia by electric chair. There was also a panel discussion about whether the public should be allowed to view executions, which raised some points I hadn’t thought about. Does the person being put to death have a right to privacy? What about those who carry out the executions? How would public executions affect the families involved? I believe that since the death penalty is part of our legal process, executions should be as open as reasonably possible. Beyond that, no one can say what the effects would be–capital punishment as concept occupies a different space than death.

About a year ago, National Public Radio broadcast interviews with wardens, journalists, and others who regularly witness executions. Some seemed to take each one in stride. Another suddenly snapped one day, after having helped strap down more than 100 prisoners. What stayed with these people was the humanity of the final moments. Prisoners routinely thanked the people tying them down; they sang; they asked, “What do I say to God?” In the end, it’s death they are left with.

For more on this issue, see:

A Public Radio Special Report: The Execution Tapes

Sounds of execution echo across America

“Witness to an Execution” (NPR)

Death Penalty Information Center

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