Shall We Watch?
February 20, 2001
Timothy McVeigh, convicted and
sentenced to die for the Oklahoma City bombing, not only isnt
protesting or trying to delay his execution, he suggests that it be
Once upon a time, executions were
public. Hangings, beheadings, drawings and quarterings were performed
right out in the open so everyone could come, watch, and be edified.
Justice was not only done, but seen to be done. Potential malefactors were
warned in the most vivid possible way that crime doesnt pay. That
was the theory, anyway.
Unfortunately, the spectacle of
watching criminals die violent deaths wasnt always edifying.
Hangings became festive occasions, at which many of the spectators were
drunk and rowdy. Even the doomed men and women sometimes joined in the
merriment, clowning as they ascended the gallows.
Did public executions deter crime? We
dont know. In England, where picking pockets was a capital offense
in the eighteenth century, pickpockets plied their trade without
discernible fear during the hangings. But these may have been the hardy
or foolhardy few. Maybe the majority of the onlookers
watched the wretches die and drew the intended lesson. Common sense
tells us that some were deterred and others werent, but the
proportions are hard to reckon.
werent squeamish about death. Most adults saw their children die
miserably of diseases modern medicine has eliminated from our lives.
Abraham and Mary Lincoln, for example, watched two of their four sons die
young. Such an experience, however common, was as painful for parents
then as it would be for us, but it made death so familiar that the deaths of
strangers must have been easier to behold. A public and violent death
seemed appropriate for people who had committed violence against others.
McVeigh will die by poison or,
as we now say, lethal injection. Thomas Lynch, writing in
the New York Times, argues provocatively that since
we the people are killing him, we should be obliged
to watch (or at least allowed to watch) what we are
doing. Knowing is better than not knowing, he writes,
no matter how difficult the facts.
But most of us dont want to
see what we are doing, even if we approve of it and believe that McVeigh
richly deserves his fate. Lynch (no pun intended) has a point. Why should
we turn our faces away from what we say is justice? Shouldnt
justice be seen to be done? As Lynch says: If we
cannot watch, then we should reconsider.
Lynch applies his point to other things
too: war, euthanasia, abortion. Debating a womans right to
choose is more pristine than looking at a fetus in a jar or watching a
late-term abortion. The media, led by the New York
Times, advocate prenatal killing but shrink from showing what it
looks like, or even from describing it. Even the ugliest forms of feticide
are wrapped in Orwellian euphemisms terminating a
pregnancy, procedure, and the like.
The last thing abortion advocates
want is for the public to watch abortions or see the results. A single
abortion, televised on prime time, would instantly create millions of
pro-lifers. Beyond that, it would take the heart out of millions of others
who like to call themselves pro-choice.
Such people not only dont want
to see what they are advocating; they dont even want to imagine it.
The antiseptic vocabulary of their propaganda is designed to take all
imagery out of the subject. They hate pictures of it, even mental pictures.
They prefer to chant abstract slogans.
Something more than physical
squeamishness is involved here. It may be unpleasant to watch an
appendectomy, but nobody has ever become morally opposed to surgery
after watching an appendix removed. But many abortionists have changed
their minds and abandoned the (very lucrative) practice after facing up to
what they are doing.
If we cannot watch, then we
should reconsider. Thomas Lynch has put his finger on it.
Journalists who conceal the reality of abortion arent being
objective or impartial. They are aiding and abetting an evil and shameful
practice, disguising bad conscience with bad faith. The fact that they
dont want us to see what they advocate tells us all we really need
Some people would continue
supporting abortion even after watching abortions performed. Public
hangings didnt make all who witnessed them opponents of capital
punishment. But then, they didnt hang innocent children at random.
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