BROOKE GLADSTONE: In Terre Haute journalists are converging to document the backdrop. Elsewhere in the world the media play a more direct role in bringing the graphic reality of capital punishment to the public.
BOB GARFIELD:The year was 1996 and Guatemala was crippled by criminal violence. The government of Alfonso Portillo-Cabrera came to power on a promise to take action against the tide of recent history in the western hemisphere; Guatemala restored the death penalty. The first execution, by firing squad, was seen nationwide on Channel 7. Martin Rodriguez of Prensa Libre newspaper was one of millions of Guatemalans who watched as the executioners botched the job. When the prisoner failed to die in the rifle volley, an officer used a pistol shot to the temple to put the condemned out of his misery.
MARTIN RODRIGUEZ: Given a shot of grace -- [...?...] gracias --it's in Spanish -- it had a high impact.
BOB GARFIELD: Guatemala is not unique. In the past few years executions have been televised in Afghanistan, Thailand, Russia, China, Nigeria, Iraq, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, and famously in the case of the Ceaucescu's, Romania. The reasons, according to law professor and capital punishment historian John Bessler, are obvious.
PROFESSOR JOHN BESSLER: In some countries it's often used as a motive - social control or, or repression - to essentially scare the, the population - place like Iraq or a place like Libya where they've shown hangings after they've taken place on television.
BOB GARFIELD:In the United States and Western Europe the opposite has happened. While clinging to the punishment that most of the industrial world has abolished, the U.S. began in the middle of the 19th Century to take executions far from the public view. The carnival atmosphere and civil disorder surrounding executions had alarmed the states and opponents of capital punishment alike.
PROFESSOR JOHN BESSLER: The abolitionists felt that once public executions were abolished that it would only be a matter of time before capital punishment all together was abolished.
BOB GARFIELD:The believed that the cloak of secrecy would nullify the state's deterrence rationale and that public blood lust in the absence of actual blood would diminish. As it turned out, brute violence has continued to stain American society and public support of capital punishment while fluctuating over the decades has remained high. Eighty-one percent of Americans according to a new Gallup Poll support the execution of Timothy McVeigh. So it stands to reason that a newly uncloaked process as in Guatemala would find a ready audience, although 76 percent of the U.S. public, according to the same Gallup Poll, claim they wouldn't watch McVeigh's lethal injection even if they could.
JD HEALEY: That's a lie. I think most people are going to at least watch it once, and they will watch.
BOB GARFIELD: JD Healey [sp?] is owner and curator of The Museum of Death in Los Angeles.
JD HEALEY: One, because they've never seen one before; two, there's always that chance that something might go wrong; and three, it's history!
BOB GARFIELD:And four, because of the simultaneous titillation and revulsion that draws us to the macabre. Martin Rodriguez of Guatemala's Prensa Libre notes that while Channel 7 sued the government to televise executions, citing the public's right to know, the network confidently marketed the execution as a TV event.
MARTIN RODRIGUEZ: You know when you saw the-- the publicity - it was like oh, yes, someone is going to be killed and-- you can watch the execution on Channel 7. But a lot of, lot of people did watch it.
BOB GARFIELD:To historian John Bessler, a foe of capital punishment, that clamor to witness the ultimate justice is a perversity easy to understand. What he doesn't understand if state killing is supposed to be a deterrent is the combination in many democracies of ultimate justice and secrecy!
PROFESSOR JOHN BESSLER: Japan has the most restrictive laws; they don't even notify the public that an execution has taken place. The only way you can really find out is to check the family registry and if the name is crossed off then you know that the execution has taken place.
BOB GARFIELD:Even Amnesty International, the human rights organization, finds such opaqueness bizarre. Thus Amnesty finds itself in the unlikely position of championing execution broadcasts to show the public the gruesome reality behind the sanitized debate. Senior department executive director Kurt Goerring [sp?].
KURT GOERRING: To the extent that footage or pictures help the public to realize what's actually going on, it does serve the larger purpose.
BOB GARFIELD: It's a paradox, but as we've observed, the question of capital punishment is riddled with them. So maybe it's easy to shrug and accept the counter-intuitive Amnesty International position at face value: societies need to witness capital punishment in all its horror in order to rid themselves of it. But is it really true? Zafaryab Ahmed is a Pakistani journalist in exile from political persecution in his own country. He has witnessed and documented repression, corruption and violence in a country where newspapers are filled with images of murder and mayhem bleeding and leading. But what haunts him most are the front pages from the Zia regime of the 1980s of prisoners dangling from the hangman's noose.
ZAFARYAB AHMED: People do not understand the role that images play and how do they go down into, into their psyche and how do they rupture what is peaceful.
BOB GARFIELD: The terror, he says, is consuming.
ZAFARYAB AHMED:It brutalizes society at, at a - at a level that you can't estimate it; it cannot be quantified and, and it does change values; it does change the facts of human relationships. And it does kill something in the society which is very human.
BOB GARFIELD:Surely when public policy intrudes on the human spirit, much of the debate, much of the passion, much of the principle simply evaporates. What lingers indelibly in Lahore or Guatemala or Georgia is the picture.