See It Now


The State of Maryland is to videotape its next execution -- the first for a number of years. Videotaped executions offer a whole new dimension of capital punishment, both as televised news and -- as soon as enough executions are on tape -- as videocassettes for home entertainment.

In the Good Old Days almost all executions were performed in public, for good reason. If the purpose of capital punishment is to deter crime, why do it in secret? Surely its point is to make clear to wrongdoers that malefactors will be caught and punished, and maximum deterrence is achieved if punishments are as painful and public as possible.

The U.S. Constitution forbids "cruel and unusual" punishments, which only shows the Founders were soft on crime and didn't live in 1993, when cruel and unusual crimes are commonplace. In any case, if public executions again become the norm, they would cease to be unusual, and if not effective as deterrents, why have them at all?

The message of executions has always been "We hate criminals. We destroy criminals. And we enjoy witnessing their deaths." Clearly, execution was never intended to reform. The condemned are worthless, written off, to be publicly trashed as an example to society.

Hence in less squeamish times executions were planned as cautionary spectacles and mounted on elevated scaffolds in the town square where maximum visibility was assured. Executions were good family viewing, and old drawings depict mothers holding up their little ones to see the show. The public rarely had to be told to attend; on the contrary, executions drew huge crowds and attracted sideshows, hawkers, buskers and pickpockets like any fair or carnival.

Executions were carefully choreographed. The condemned was brought to the scene standing manacled in an open cart, and all the players were costumed to heighten the drama. The executioner was often muscular and bare-chested, wearing a black mask to conceal his identity and add a touch of mystery. A black-robed priest was on hand to speak of sin and punishment on earth and in hell, and to accept the confession of the condemned. Criminals were expected to say how much they regretted their crime, to ask God's forgiveness and submit themselves meekly to justice. The condemned was then hanged, drawn and quartered; that is, strung up for a while, then cut down, his belly slashed and his guts pulled out before his eyes. His head was then severed and his body hacked into four parts to be exhibited in all four quarters of the town. Then his head was stuck on a stake and set up near the city gate as a warning to wayward visitors.

Today, despite our crime-coddling Constitution, the American people still hunger for tougher punishments, longer sentences, harder cells. Given a choice, they would surely vote to give violent criminals a taste of their own medicine. Nothing, they say, deters a criminal like his own demise -- and if that demise is visibly presented on a hundred million screens, so much the better.

If public executions worked as cautionary spectacles in pre-television times, think how effective they would be today: the close-ups, the skillful cutting, the enhanced sound, and over all, the voice of justice denouncing crime and exhorting the public to watch and be warned.

It's time to really get tough on crime. Videotaping executions is a good start.

John Brain is a Baltimore writer.

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