In Medialand, It Was Time to Kill  

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Norman Solomon’s Column

Minutes after a federal judge ruled that the execution of Timothy McVeigh should proceed on June 11 as scheduled, CNN was airing live interviews with people who lost relatives in the Oklahoma City bombing. When an anchor asked one woman whether she planned to attend the closed-circuit telecast of the execution, her reply was unequivocal: “I’ll be there with bells on.”

Overall, major news outlets were more discreet as they looked forward to the long-awaited execution. Yet media enthusiasm was transparent. And cable news channels — seeking a spike in ratings — made the most of the opportunity.

For CNN, which came into its own a decade ago as a national and global news network during the Gulf War, the latest chance to lure a big audience came courtesy of McVeigh, a former U.S. Army sergeant who was a bit player in that war. The media glory went to men named Schwarzkopf and Powell. More recently, infamy has gone to McVeigh.

One way or another, high-profile death has been very good for the media business. When the victims are foreigners on the wrong side of American firepower (for instance, in Baghdad or Belgrade), they serve as mere dots on Pentagon-produced videos of missile strikes, rapturously shown on this country’s TV networks. In diametric contrast, when outsized celebrities (Princess Di or JFK Jr.) go to untimely deaths, their humanity looms extra large — the opposite of blips on screens.

When U.S. taxpayers have footed the bill for bombs taking lives overseas — for example, in Central America during the 1980s or in Iraq and Yugoslavia later on — the victims and their mourning relatives have gotten scant empathetic news coverage in the United States. Consciously or otherwise, journalists are often quick to ask for whom the bell tolls, and then shrug.

In the case of the 168 people in Oklahoma City whose lives were cruelly destroyed, the mastermind did not become rich or attain a Cabinet post. He was executed.

America has been in the midst of macabre synergy between ratings-driven TV news outlets and grief-stricken survivors of the explosion at the Murrah Federal Building. Perhaps each provided some of what the other needed, or at least craved. In any event, a huge media spectacle moved to its grim climax.

No staged episode of “reality TV” could replicate the scale and scope of the government’s real-life murder of an unrepentant murderer.

Generally, when death claims a loved one and changes our lives forever, we feel that the world should take notice, that respects should be paid. We may recognize, as philosopher Corliss Lamont put it, that the tragedy of death “is inherent in the great gift of life.” And yet, at the same time, like Dylan Thomas, we may “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Such rage is especially acute when lives are cut short by intentional actions such as the one that McVeigh took on a spring day in 1995. It’s understandable that after six years of mourning and anguish, a relative would jump at the chance to stand in front of media microphones — and, in effect, in front of the world – – to rejoice aloud that the life of the “delusional and suicidal” McVeigh was about to be snuffed out.

Complete with horrific criminality and lethal vengeance, the drama on the nation’s main stage was both a real-life calamity and a choreographed morality play produced largely by news media. With official enthusiasm from agencies with names like “Justice Department,” the taking of a human life was rendered as affirmation of the sanctity of human life.

The equation can be understood as Orwellian; we revere life by inflicting death. “The Execution of Timothy McVeigh: The TV Show” featured a numbing blitz of show-biz solemnity, complete with black suits worn by network anchors on execution day. But the coverage rarely questioned a key premise of capital punishment: Our society must kill in order to emphasize that killing is wrong.

For this grisly media show, there was no understudy available for the lead role. Strict procedures, spelled out in the government’s Execution Protocol, required that guards continuously monitor the condemned prisoner during his final days and hours — to make sure that he didn’t try to harm himself.

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