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Public execution and an 'American Taliban'

Public execution and an 'American Taliban'

Author: Tahir Mirza
Publication: Dawn, Karachi
Date: April 19, 2001

SOMETHING very strange is going to happen in America on May 16 - something close to the public execution of a criminal, reminiscent of the kind of state-sponsored killings that are routinely denounced here as mediaeval when practised in other climes and other societies.

It goes like this. A young man, Timothy McVeigh, has been sentenced to death for the savage and inhuman bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma in 1995 in which 168 people were killed.

The man has not only admitted to his cruel deed, but seems, callously and arrogantly, unrepentant. He says he carried out his outrage in retaliation for the Waco siege by security forces that had ended in a fire that consumed all members of the sect holed up in a farm. McVeigh is now due to be executed by lethal injection next month.

On a plea from relatives of those killed in the Oklahoma tragedy, US Attorney-General John Ashcroft, who was grilled during his confirmation hearings on his perceived right-wing and racist views, has decided that the execution will be televised via a live, encrypted, closed-circuit telecast to be watched by the relatives. The telecast will not be recorded, and there will be no permanent record of the event.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons allows families of victims to witness an execution. But the closed-circuit televised broadcast has been made necessary because of the numbers of family members involved. They will sit in an unnamed building and watch the killer being put to death. They have asked to be witnesses to this gruesome act so that they can finally feel that justice has been done and thus achieve some kind of catharsis for their undeniable grief.

McVeighs act was unprecedented. But so is the format for his execution devised by Mr Ashcroft. This is the foot in the door sought by bloodthirsty networks that thrive on appealing to the morbid interest in vengeance inherent in most of us.

When Ziaul Haq had publicly hung three killers outside Camp Jail in Lahore, a huge crowd had thronged the site and enjoyed snacks sold by hawkers while the men were strung from the gallows. Such acts brutalize society, as Pakistan keeps learning to its cost. There has been no public outcry against Mr Ashcrofts decision, and this can only indicate that the average American, in this day and age when the US loses no opportunity to lecture others on issues of humans rights and civilized values, endorses the idea of McVeighs execution being televised, on however limited a scale. But a few voices have been raised in protest.

The New York Times, in an editorial, has said by publicly televising McVeighs execution, broadcasters would be showing the very kind of act the taking of a human life for which Mr McVeigh is being executed. The telecast would appeal to the basest instincts of the viewing public, and would inevitably coarsen our society.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has described Attorney-General Ashcroft as an American Taliban who retired his mind from active duty years ago. If Mr Ashcroft thinks about what he has authorized, the columnist goes on to add, he would realize that closure closing the circle (of punishment matching the nature of crime) is not what we need. It must be broken.

The endless cycle of a life taken for a life taken on and on must be shattered.

Some civil libertarians have taken the argument to its logical extreme. They say that as long as executions are permitted in the US, it is right that the public should be confronted with and be accountable for what it sanctions.

Let people watch one execution and they will turn against the death penalty, they assert.

However, the most surprising opposition to the attorney-generals decision has come from Wesley Pruden, editor-in-chief of The Washington Times, who can only be described, for lack of another suitably polite term, as a sworn conservative.

He says in his weekly column: Timothy McVeigh is a monster, and, as monstrous as the Oklahoma City bombing was, the final act of his life may turn out to be his most monstrous deed of all. His execution, to be televised (if only on a closed circuit) surely opens the door to making state-sanctioned killing the stuff of Entertainment Tonight.

* * * *

IS THE public interest in developing countries best served by state control of the media or private media ownership? If total state capture of the media negates civil liberties, does total private control makes the media unresponsive to social needs? Can a via media be achieved between the two?

These could be encapsulated as some of the questions before a consultative meeting on The Role of the Media in Development held at the World Banks headquarters in Washington last week. The meeting was opened by the banks vice-president for external affairs, Mr Mats Karlsson, and a number of senior bank officials and media representatives took part in four discussion sessions, each devoted to a particular aspect of the subject under discussion.

Some of the papers presented were extremely technical in nature, but since the medias role in development was at the centre of the deliberations, it was inevitable that issues relating to press freedom, responsiveness to populist aspirations and control particularly of radio and television should have dominated the debate.

One participant, Chris Haw, senior vice-president and executive producer of the Discovery network, pointed out that state help was necessary sometimes and was absolutely crucial in certain areas, such as in the making of documentaries. He pointed out that the BBCs strength lay in the mandate it had from the government to produce socially relevant programmes, and in fact he had yet to see a media operation anywhere in the world that could be described as being really independent. Even in the US, the press was subsidized by the state through the special postal rates given to newspapers.

On the other hand, another participant challenged the view that state ownership or control was relevant to the economic and social needs of developing countries and, with the help of statistics, showed that nations with higher levels of state ownership had lower levels of social indicators in comparison to countries with lesser or no state control.

It was also pointed out that two-thirds of the world's major newspapers were family controlled and one-third by the state whereas two-third of television stations in the world were under state-control, and one-third were privately owned. Thus, it was argued, state ownership was bad for the poor. But if television, for instance, was entirely handed over to private control in developing countries, would it spare time from its commercial, money-earning razzmatazz to broadcast programmes on education and population control and health awareness for the rural masses? This was not seriously taken up in the discussions.

Dr Frank Vogl of Transparency International was specially vocal against conglomerate media organizations and the take over of hard news organizations by the entertainment industry.

He said news had become just another division of many conglomerate organizations. He didnt know what the answer was. Perhaps a vigorous privately owned media with full transparency of media ownership patterns could be examined as part of the solution.

Altogether a rewarding and instructive days discussion, and only on Monday, there were reports that Americas largest broadcasters, cable companies and other media outlets are succeeding in rolling back regulations that have been crucial in promoting diversity of viewpoints in news and entertainment businesses. In recent weeks, courts have struck down rules that limit the size of cable companies, so that they can technically grow as much as they want to.

* * * *

BY THE age of 19, it is estimated that American children have spent nearly 19,000 hours in front of the television, where two-thirds of all programming has sexual content. The number of sexual references on TV programmes has tripled between 1988 and 1999, which means that todays middle-school level children may have a different outlook even from their older siblings - Deborah Roffman, consultant on human sexuality education, in an article in Sundays Washington Post in which she referred to an incident four weeks ago where a private school student in Baltimore secretly videotaped himself having sex with a 15-year-old girl. The writer says people should not be as surprised over the incident as outraged at the content of TV programmes, which are not only replete with sexual innuendoes but crassly exploit women and the female form.

* * * *

THE Association of Pakistani American Physicians of North America (AAPNA) held its annual conclave in Washington last week. A plea was made by speakers for the Pakistani American community to become politically more active. "Get to know your Congressman," one participant aptly said. AAPNA is one of the largest, most active and best-organized groups representing the Pakistani-American community.

Many speeches were made. But for doctors, a remarkable lack of communicating or communication skills was on display.

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