The Ultimate Snuff Show


KQED, a San Francisco public television station, has applied for a court order that would permit it to videotape a gas-chamber execution in San Quentin Prison for later use in a documentary on capital punishment. KQED insists that its purpose is not to boost ratings by luring viewers to the ultimate snuff show, but to educate Americans about the death penalty. In other words, its purpose is not to broadcast news but to win souls to the righteous cause.

We don't question the cause; this newspaper has called repeatedly for abolition of the death penalty. But we have done so on the grounds that it is ineffective as a deterrent, and therefore operates in practice only as a ritual of social vengeance. A civilized society ought to strive toward an ethic of respect for all human life. We think KQED has confused ends and means. Respect for human life is not enhanced by making a TV show out of the extinction of a human life.

KQED has made many promises -- not to broadcast the execution live, not to show the documentary at an hour when children might be watching, not to show it at all if the condemned prisoner objected or if the footage turned out to be gruesome.

These are commendable inhibitions, but we wonder if they do not defeat KQED's purpose. Death is de-personalized if it is presented only as a bureaucratic procedure. An execution arouses pity and terror -- Aristotle's definition of tragic drama -- only if those watching can feel the condemned man's heart pounding, hear his weeping and groaning, feel his loss of bowel and bladder control. But then for the sake of "balance" there must be a re-enactment of the crimes that led the prisoner to the death chamber, and of the sufferings of his victims. Geraldo Rivera could put such a show together, perhaps with color commentary from the excitable Dick Vitale. Once the rule against television cameras in the execution chamber is lifted for KQED, it must be lifted for other cameras with fewer scruples.

Until the last century, most executions were public spectacles. It was felt that witnessing a hanging or a beheading would have a cautionary effect on those who might be tempted to crime. This practice ended when public authorities found that violence and drunkenness increased after public executions; the masses were not chastened but inflamed. KQED's hope that televising an execution might mobilize public revulsion seems equally vain; public catharsis might lead instead to a demand for more executions.

Courtroom trials are public, to protect the integrity of the procedure, but are usually closed to cameras to protect its dignity. The same rule ought to apply to executions, until legislatures are ready to outlaw capital punishment altogether.

Hal Piper edits this page.

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