The first execution of 2013 was carried out Wednesday night in Virginia. We strapped convicted murderer Robert Gleason Jr. to “old sparky” and fried him.
You probably didn’t know that.
Indeed, activist groups and the media tend to focus on cases where the guilt of the prisoner is in question — for example, Philadelphia’s Mumia Abu-Jamal a year ago. They also attempt to intervene where prosecutorial misconduct or racial bias is a concern — like in Terrance Williams’ case last year.
That’s why Gleason Jr. hasn’t attracted much attention — he’s an admitted murderer three times over. He murdered a member of a methamphetamine drug ring to prevent him from testifying in court. Then, while incarcerated, he murdered his cellmate because he was frustrated with him.
Finally, while in solitary confinement, he strangled another inmate and taunted prison officials who attempted to revive him.
Shortly thereafter, Gleason Jr. told the Associated Press, “I murdered that man cold-bloodedly. I planned it, and I’m gonna do it again. Someone needs to stop it. The only way to stop me is put me on death row.”
One can understand why there hasn’t been a big public outcry surrounding his execution and why Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell announced he would not block it.
Gleason Jr. is clearly a danger to others and no doubt executing him will make the lives of his fellow inmates and correction officers safer. It’s very easy to say that he’s getting what he deserves — a sentiment that even he has expressed. Because we don’t see the executions, it’s easy to abdicate responsibility for them.
And that’s why we should televise executions.
Currently, we focus on retributive justice and our responsibility in it. If executions were broadcast into our homes, we would be forced to confront broader, more important, questions like whether the state should be allowed to kill its citizens.
The social contract that we all implicitly enter when we are born into our society should not endow the state the power to kill us. Society, which represents that we have moved beyond a state of nature, should be held to a higher standard and as such should not resort to barbaric means to protect its citizens.
Ultimately, this type of control is empirically more dangerous in the hands of a government. Inevitably, a state that is empowered to kill its own citizens under certain circumstances will seek to expand that power where it finds it expedient.
Take the Obama administration, for example. In the “War on Terror” the president has deemed it necessary at times to execute American citizens living abroad. In 2011, we executed a 16-year-old American citizen simply because his father was an active member of al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, despite the fact that we had already executed his father two weeks prior.
We continue to carry out drone executions in the Middle East and we continue to execute our citizens at home.
It’s not clear how we would respond to televised executions. In times past, executions were very popular forms of entertainment — and they still are today in some other parts of the world.
Maybe we would decide that we like executions. Bravo could start a new reality TV series about death row inmates.
Or maybe we would start to have a conversation about whether we think that we should allow such barbaric practices to be carried out in our country. How would parents respond to their children’s questions about why it’s OK for us to kill that man on TV?
Perhaps that could spark a greater debate about the barbaric nature of punishment in our country. We have by far the largest prison population in the world and we subject them to harsh and dangerous conditions. In fact more inmates are murdered every year in prison than are executed.
We like to think of ourselves as living in the most civilized country in the world. For the most part, we ignore the barbaric aspects of punishment that are meted out by the state.
Maybe if we were forced to confront that punishment, we actually could live in the most civilized country in the world.
Kurt Mitman is a 6th-year doctoral student from McLean, Va. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him @SorryToBeKurt. “Sorry To Be Kurt” appears every Friday.