Washington Post

By E. J. DIONNE, Jr.

Timothy McVeigh presents opponents of the death penalty with the hardest test they have confronted in decades. And the debate about whether his May 16 execution should be televised has forced us all to contemplate exactly what it is that coarsens our culture — reality, or its presentation.

If there is to be a death penalty, the man who killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing certainly deserves it.

Had McVeigh escaped this sentence, could any prosecutor have subsequently made a case that the particular murderer he or she had brought to trial was somehow worse than this one? And McVeigh, with his cold talk of dead children as “collateral damage,” has done all in his power to incite the desire for justifiable vengeance. If members of the families of the victims want to see him die, how many among us could honestly say we’d feel any differently?

But will we — and they — be better off for having put McVeigh to death? Most of the classic arguments against the death penalty come down to asking whether a society promotes respect for human life by a system of punishment that involves taking the life of a killer, even a mass killer.

It’s doubtful that sentiment would satisfy the legitimate anger of people in Oklahoma City.

Consider, however, an important statement made by Attorney General John Ashcroft when he banned in-person interviews with McVeigh. “I do not want anyone,” Ashcroft said, “to be able to purchase access to the podium of America with the blood of 168 innocent victims.”

Nobody can disagree with that sentiment, but it raises the question: For a killer like McVeigh, does the death penalty elevate the very podium all of us want to deny him? Does society’s decision to take his life allow McVeigh to paint himself — in his own eyes, if in the eyes of few others — as a martyr? Does capital punishment become, in such cases, exactly the opposite of a deterrent?

Fear of making McVeigh a martyr plays a big role in arguments against televising his execution — as it is, it will be shown only by closed-circuit television to accommodate the families of the victims.

“If despicable terrorists like McVeigh are to be shown at the moment of death, of finality, the sympathy he so craves will become a reality,” businessman Abe Novick wrote last week in the Baltimore Sun. McVeigh “understands the role the media plays in today’s world — how it can make killers into heroes and tragedy into entertainment.”

The number of Americans who will ever view McVeigh as a hero is mercifully small. But Novick’s point is valid, made all the more so by the obscene request of an Internet company to get access to the execution so it could sell it as a pay-per-view.

Yet is it televising the execution that achieves the ends Novick describes, or is it the execution itself? Doesn’t that suggest it is the action itself that troubles us?

The New York Times editorialized last week that “by publicly televising Mr. McVeigh’s execution, broadcasters would be showing the very kind of act — the taking of a human life — for which Mr. McVeigh is being executed. The telecast would appeal to the basest instincts of the viewing public, and would inevitably coarsen our society.”

The Times editorially opposes the death penalty, so its stand is intellectually consistent. But its argument can be turned around. If we became more publicly aware of the number of executions carried out in our names, if we had to confront them in a way we do not have to now, would we not become more aware of precisely the point the newspaper made? Might we not ask ourselves ifexecutions were “the very kind of act” they are designed to punish?

In the end, I find it difficult to disagree with the respected civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, who wrote earlier this month: “We, as a people, demand accountability of our public officials. Surely we should not shirk our duty to witness — and therefore be accountable for — the executions that we permit.”

Note how many of my sentences have ended with question marks. They reflect how hard it is for even staunch opponents of the death penalty to evade questions about whether there are some crimes for which execution is the only truly just punishment.

Timothy McVeigh, in other words, may deserve to die. But will our society ennoble itself by putting him to death? If we were sure of the answer, we would have fewer qualms about putting his execution on television for all to see.