Historical Notes: A society that kills deviants in secret

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IMAGINE IF the execution of criminals were once again to become a form of public spectacle. Millions might witness the final moments of the condemned man or woman on televisions in their homes and offices, in their bars and shopping malls, indeed, from one end of the global village to another. Audiences could once again observe and remark, as they once did, on the sign-language of the electrocuted body as it involuntarily shook with pain and sobbing; they might observe as the subject of lethal injection trembles as the life flowed silently out.

In such a new, legalised genre of snuff-video the pain of death could, in other words, once again be rendered visible, concrete, undeniably real. The image of the body in pain would become an object of collective fascination and the focal point of a new kind of spectatorship.

My fictitious scenario for a return to punishments enacted before the camera and the public gaze could make an interesting simulation game for social scientists if it weren't for the fact that the American reality may be catching up with fantasy. In 1991 the San Fransisco public television station, KQED, sued the warden of San Quentin for the right to televise the gassing of Robert Alton Harris, the first execution in the state in 24 years.

Though this was not the first such petition, and Harris was finally killed beyond the camera's gaze, the affair shifted the terms of debate about the death penalty, and the political uses of pain, if only for a time, to the post-medieval question of public sensibilities and their brutalisation by open displays of violence.

Officially, the last public executions in the United States took place in the early 1830s (though lynchings continued). After that time, reformers who saw public punishment as "a spectacle at once revolting and injurious to society", succeeded in sequestering the ritual behind the walls of the prison.

Amidst the KQED affair, abolitionists were divided, though many felt that televising an execution now would reveal the hypocrisy of a society that kills its deviants in secret. They seemed to be insisting, in concert with Albert Camus, that, if a society really believed in capital punishment as a deterrent, "it would exhibit the heads".

What would it mean for the contemporary public sphere if sensibilities that had long ago adjusted to the privatisation of pain, and the invisibility of actual punishment, were henceforth invited into the penitentiary to witness its lethal sanctions? Would the success of the KQED petition have signalled a kind of regression, perhaps even an instance of what the great sociologist Norbert Elias termed a "decivilising spurt"? Would it have meant, in other words, a return to the Middle Ages?

If we see a "medieval" return to punishments enacted before the public gaze, that gaze will surely be different from its ancestor in the era of humanitarianism's prehistory. Rather than the focused, compassionate identification with the penitent convict upon the scaffold, our gaze will more likely be the distracted, mechanical stare presaged in Andy Warhol's serialised disaster images. As the iconic presence of the electric chair in one of his best-known silkscreens atomises into smaller and smaller units, like a cell- division without brakes, it provides us with a compelling, anti-humanist premonition of how the pain of the prisoner's body might "look" when its electronic image reaches everybody.

However, unlike the judicial spectators in the Middle Ages, we will be quiet, sitting still, completely free to wonder whether we have any stake at all in the hideous death of this poor, condemned sinner. "The picture becomes evidence of the general human condition," wrote the critic John Berger. "It accuses everybody and nobody."

Mitchell B. Merback is the author of `The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: pain and the spectacle of punishment in medieval and Renaissance Europe' (Reaktion Books, pounds 25)