Law and Conversation

August 3, 2011

Making executions public

As I wrote earlier this week, David Lat and Zachary Shemtob had a thoughtful editorial in The New York Times this weekend advocating for televising executions.

Some years ago, my reaction to this idea would have been that televising executions, or otherwise making public spectacles of executions as was routinely done not so many years ago, would be revolting and barbaric. At that time, I was a supporter of capital punishment, reasoning that some crimes are so awful that they deserve death. But I didn’t like to think about it–the idea of killing someone, premeditated and approved by law, made me too uncomfortable.

Then I read an historian’s account of public executions in 18th century England (Robert Hughes’s “The Fatal Shore,” a history of Australia). Hughes wrote of the crowds that turned out to see convicts taken to the gallows and the pervasive carnival-like atmosphere. His vivid description, which I have no doubt was completely accurate, disgusted me and started me thinking: if you wouldn’t want someone to see what you’re doing because it’s so awful, why would you want to do it at all? And why would you approve of your government doing something so horrible that it can’t be allowed to be shown in public–even though national security (which I agree would be a compelling reason, as in the execution of Osama bin Laden and in the photos of his body) is not an issue?

Lat and Shemtob are careful to say that they, like many citizens, are deeply conflicted over capital punishment and are not urging their point as a means of turning public opinion against it (though they recognize that others have). Their argument for bringing sunshine into the execution chamber is strong and convincingly written.

In the meantime, I’ve reconciled my own conflict on the issue, following reading Hughes, as follows: though some criminals may deserve death, it doesn’t follow that the government should mete it out. So my reaction to Lat’s and Shemtob’s argument remains that public executions would be revolting and barbaric–but I also believe that executions that are not open to the public are revolting and barbaric. So, if we’re going to impose the death penalty and kill people, let’s adopt Lat’s and Shemtob’s proposal, and let everyone see exactly what happens during an execution.

And that highlights a compelling reason for reading (and telling) stories: they can help you think about and see things differently, whether personal matters, current events, or what have you. I wouldn’t have expected a story about events in 18th century England, contained in a history of Australia, to lead me to change my mind about the death penalty in the modern USA, but it did.

Has a story ever helped you to see another matter in a different light?


  1. […] I recently posted about the death penalty and what I see as its barbaric quality, even in such a repugnant case as Lawrence Brewer’s. A classic novel about a man found guilty of murder and executed that’s not read so much these days is Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” I read it more than thirty years ago, but it’s stuck with me, and I’d recommend it to anyone. GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_bg", "ffffff"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_text", "000000"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_link", "b54141"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_border", "eeeeee"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_url", "b54141"); GA_googleAddAttr("LangId", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Autotag", "books"); GA_googleAddAttr("Autotag", "entertainment"); GA_googleAddAttr("Autotag", "politics"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "books-and-writing"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "death-penalty"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "law"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "an-american-tragedy"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "death-penalty"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "lawrence-brewer"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "theodore-dreiser"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "troy-davis"); GA_googleFillSlot("wpcom_sharethrough"); Share this:TwitterFacebookDiggLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Leave a Comment […]

    Pingback by Executions today « Law and Conversation — September 21, 2011 @ 7:40 pm | Reply

  2. […] death penalty is a pretty uncomfortable topic, and, as I wrote a while back, I spent quite a bit of time thinking I supported it while preferring not to think about it too […]

    Pingback by Davis executed « Law and Conversation — September 22, 2011 @ 10:05 am | Reply

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