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Timothy McVeigh: The Closed Circuit

If confessed mass murderer Timothy (not “Tim,” as some TV people chummily call him) McVeigh is executed June 11 or on any other date, I want to see him die.

Not necessarily in person at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., where McVeigh is still on death row after getting a stay, although that would be fine. Already picked, though, are the few media members and others who will be watching there through a glass window, as provided by law.

I’d settle, instead, for seeing McVeigh die on closed-circuit TV. The federal government is offering that option in Oklahoma City, where in 1995 McVeigh detonated a truck bomb that killed 149 adults and 19 children at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

McVeigh has been quoted as callously labeling the kids he blew apart “collateral damage” in his quest to avenge the government’s 1993 raid on Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas, in which 75 perished.

Nonetheless, watching him die won’t be pleasant, I’m fairly sure. I can take it, though, and I know you can, too. We’re veterans of death on TV, after all, as far back as seeing Jack Ruby gun down Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas in 1963. And especially after seeing live news coverage three years ago of a deranged Los Angeles motorist blowing away half his face with a shotgun on a freeway overpass. What sight could be worse than that?

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Surely not McVeigh’s final act. As I understand it, he’ll be strapped down on a gurney as prison technicians give him a series of injections, including a muscle relaxant designed to protect him from the pain of death and two more shots, one to stop his breathing, another to stop his heart and kill him.

I’d take witnessing that any day over seeing death by shotgun, however speedy, with a victim leaving his brains on the pavement.

As a U.S. citizen, moreover, I have as much right as my fellow citizens to watch McVeigh die on TV. Correct?

Obviously not.

I asked for a seat at the closed-circuit telecast, but the U.S. Bureau of Prisons said no because I wasn’t a survivor of the bombing or a relative of a victim. Thanks to Atty. Gen. John D. Ashcroft, only they are being given entry to this special telecast of McVeigh dying by injection in the first federal execution in nearly four decades.

And of course, there’ll be no national telecast or authorized additional showing of any kind now that a federal judge has turned back an Internet company’s efforts to offer live video of the execution on the Web at $1.95 a pop.

Sound and video recording devices are banned by law from federal executions. Ashcroft made an exception for McVeigh, approving the closed-circuit telecast to accommodate a reported 285 surviving victims and family members who said they wanted to watch the bomber die, a group too large for the small witness room adjacent to the execution chamber in Terre Haute.

Call it curiosity, even twisted voyeurism. I want to view McVeigh’s execution, however, because I want to see for myself, and not hear from others, what it’s like for the government to put someone to death.

I’m against capital punishment, whether McVeigh drifts off serenely or departs as gruesomely as Florida murderers who at times flamed up like Roman candles when dying in an electric chair nicknamed “Old Sparky.”

As regular readers of this column know, however, I’m avidly for televising executions, believing the public should confront the reality that polls say it endorses, that it’s hypocrisy to approve actions one hasn’t the courage to witness, that averting eyes from the consequences of one’s deed--as McVeigh himself appears to have done--is cowardly.

Besides, governments in democracies are meant to do things in the open.

So I applaud, on both philosophical and humanitarian grounds, Ashcroft arranging this special viewing in Oklahoma City. If McVeigh is to die, and watching him die brings these folks peace, closure or whatever, give them the best seats in the house.

But help me on this part. If the execution is fit viewing for them, why isn’t it for the rest of us? If watching it won’t harm them, why will it harm us? If they have earned this opportunity, why haven’t all Americans, many of them also carrying deep emotional scars from the bombing? If it could grant them serenity, why wouldn’t it all across the land? Why is what’s good for them not good for everyone else?

I can’t imagine agreeing with McVeigh about anything except that his own execution will be an act of state barbarism and that, as he has urged, it should be televised nationally and not limited to a select group in Oklahoma.

Ashcroft is said to oppose anything that would generate more exposure for McVeigh, believing the ultimate photo op would be a national telecast of his death, his final words becoming a dangerous manifesto of his gnarled beliefs.

But McVeigh long ago became a martyr to his comrades and others potentially in that camp. As far as self-serving publicity, that genie, too, is out of the bottle, with him already having his say at length in “American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing,” a book by two Buffalo News reporters claiming to accurately relate his life and events surrounding the bombing. And McVeigh’s recently rerun “60 Minutes” interview with Ed Bradley was not only widely watched, but also inexplicably so soft (as if challenging him would be unfair) that the questions could have been ghost-written by Larry King.

So any TV forum available to McVeigh at his execution would pale compared with what he’s already gotten. In other words, if the survivors and families are to see him die, no valid case can be made for excluding others who want the same chance. Equal opportunity: That, too, is what this nation promises its citizens.

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Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted via e-mail at howard.rosenberg@latimes.com.


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