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Shall We Watch?

February 20, 2001

Timothy McVeigh, convicted and sentenced to die for the Oklahoma City bombing, not only isn’t protesting or trying to delay his execution, he suggests that it be televised.

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 doesn’t pay. That was the theory, anyway.

Unfortunately, the spectacle of watching criminals die violent deaths wasn’t 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 don’t 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 weren’t, but the proportions are hard to reckon.

[Breaker quote: Killing on 
television]Our ancestors weren’t 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 don’t 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? Shouldn’t 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 woman’s 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 don’t want to see what they are advocating; they don’t 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 aren’t being objective or impartial. They are aiding and abetting an evil and shameful practice, disguising bad conscience with bad faith. The fact that they don’t want us to see what they advocate tells us all we really need to know.

Some people would continue supporting abortion even after watching abortions performed. Public hangings didn’t make all who witnessed them opponents of capital punishment. But then, they didn’t hang innocent children at random.

Joseph Sobran

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Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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