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Public executions and bullfights

I'm no big fan of capital punishment, but it's hard to argue that John Allen Muhammad didn't deserve to die last week. Much more than most murders, his were particularly meaningless. And they were thoroughly public: for three weeks in 2002 some citizens in the Washington metropolitan area were paralyzed with fear, and nearly all were seriously uneasy during any public activity that could expose them to a sniper's bullet. Some just stayed home.

Family members of Muhammad's victims were permitted to witness his execution. One wonders why, for crimes this public, the tradition of the public execution isn't reinstated.

I was thinking about this as CNN counted down the hours and minutes until Muhammad's death by lethal injection. A number of news networks covered every minute detail leading up to the execution, but all video coverage was barred from the death chamber itself.

Somehow this put me in mind of the ancient tradition of the Spanish bullfight, which may seem like an odd cognitive leap, but go along with me for a moment: The bullfight is one of the few modern occasions where death becomes a spectacle that crowds congregate to witness, recalling public executions of the past.

Philosophically, the bullfight is practically indefensible, though many have tried to make a case for it. Sometimes, its apologists argue, it rises to the level of a beautiful and graceful art. Perhaps. But most of the time bullfighting is bloody butchery.

But butchery is the point. Spanish and Mexican bulls are always butchered and consumed after the bullfight, and as much as anything else the bullfight is a very public and brutally honest ritual that demonstrates what always happens in meat-eating societies: creatures die and considerable blood is spilt.

Americans have managed to insert a number of intermediate steps between their meat eating and the brutal process that produces the bloodless, cellophaned slabs of beef that appear beneath the fluorescent lights of our meat markets. Mexicans and Spaniards know where meat comes from; most Americans have little sense of the miserable conditions in the factory farms that produce the sirloin they enjoy.

Ironically, Spaniards and Mexicans continue to kill bulls in public, but they stopped executing people long ago. We consume animals at a world-record pace but do the dirty work of a meat-eating culture away from the public eye. And as the last developed Western nation to retain the death penalty, we do our civic killing in private, as well.

Perhaps it's a healthier society -- and certainly a more honest one -- that owns up to the killing that it does. Accordingly here are two suggestions:

First, like the rest of the advanced world, let's abolish the death penalty. It's never served as a deterrent to violent crime, we've never figured out how to apply it equitably irrespective of race, class, or gender, and it's clear that from time to time we execute innocent people. Yes, we absolutely do.

However, given the public consensus in its favor, the death penalty isn't likely to be abolished in our country any time soon.

So, the second suggestion: Let's bring executions back out in public, like other death-penalty states such as Iran and North Korea.

As recently as 1936, Americans traveled for miles to take in a public execution, and I'm certain that an execution like Muhammad's would be a TV-ratings bonanza. In fact, a portion of the commercial proceeds could be used to compensate the victims' families.

Those who argue that public executions would brutalize our sensibilities haven't seen the "Saw" series of movies -- all of my students have -- or watched ultimate cage fighting on TV. By those standards, lethal injection is tame.

Too tame, perhaps. A public hanging would be less humane, but much more telegenic.

We've entrusted the state with the authority to kill very bad people. Some would argue that we have the right to watch. I'd say that it's an obligation.

-- Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at