Like Madame LaFarge doing her knitting while taking in guillotine executions in Charles Dickens's "Tale of Two Cities," many Americans may be tempted to view the scheduled May 16 execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as a morbid but necessary spectacle.
The atmosphere in Terre Haute, Ind., where the federal death chamber is located, is already circuslike. Execution T-shirts and "souvenirs" abound. More than 1,600 foreign and domestic journalists, and who knows how many activists and curiosity-seekers, are expected to descend on the city before next Wednesday.
Actual viewing of the death by lethal injection will be limited to the executioners, along with select witnesses, while family members of the 168 people killed in the 1995 bombing can watch via closed-circuit TV.
The spectacle aspect of this execution is a throwback to an unpleasant past of public hangings. It's a reminder of the coarsening effect on public values of state-sanctioned killings, which usually take place far out of public view.
The wide interest - almost enthusiasm - in this execution is due to the magnitude and malevolence of Mr. McVeigh's crime, his lack of contrition, and his hatred of federal power. With so many Americans supporting this final resolution, those who oppose the death penalty may feel defensive. They needn't.
Since 1976, when the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty as constitutional (under strict standards), 707 individuals have been put to death by states. McVeigh's will be the first federal execution since 1963.
But some states are now considering a temporary halt to executions after many death-row inmates were found to be innocent or inadequately defended. One state, Illinois, has a death-penalty moratorium.
Such doubts are a valid starting point for rethinking capital punishment. But they're just a start. Society has more at stake in this issue than the risk of wrongful executions.
A civilization's core reason for existence lies in its ability to uphold the sanctity of life and perpetuate it. How much is that purpose diminished when the state executes criminals for reasons of justice? It's worth looking at those reasons in this case:
Avenging the wrong done to victims and the harm done to their families. Ending the life of someone who takes life so coldly is seen as the ultimate act of retribution. Some family members of the Oklahoma City bombing victims understandably seek closure to their hatred of McVeigh by having him die. Some doubt the execution will settle anything for them.